A federal jury found Harvard University professor and world-renowned nanoscientist Charles Lieber guilty of all counts Tuesday for lying to the government about receiving payments from a Chinese university and cheating on his taxes.
Lieber, 62, showed no emotion as the jury announced its verdict after deliberating for 2 hours and 45 minutes following five days of testimony in US District Court in Boston. He declined to comment as he left the courthouse with his wife and lawyers.
“We respect the jury’s verdict and intend to fight on,” his attorney Marc Mukasey of New York said later in an e-mail.
A Harvard spokesman declined to comment on the verdict Tuesday night.
The verdict was a significant victory for the government, which has faced criticism for prosecuting about two dozen academics across the country under the China Initiative, a program launched by the Justice Department in 2018 to target economic espionage and the theft of technology and trade secrets.
Jurors found Lieber guilty of two counts of making false statements to the government for denying he had ever participated in the Thousand Talents Program, created by the Chinese government to recruit high-level scientists; two counts of filing false tax returns for failing to report payments from Wuhan University of Technology in 2013 and 2014 for his participation in the program; and two counts of failing to file reports disclosing he had a Chinese bank account.
Judge Rya Zobel, who presided over the trial, has yet to schedule a sentencing date and it’s unclear how much prison time Lieber could face under federal sentencing guidelines. Lieber, former chairman of Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, has been on paid administrative leave since his arrest nearly two years ago.
During closing arguments Tuesday, Mukasey told jurors that Lieber helped the school get millions of dollars in federal research grants to study brain disease, but was “left holding the bag” when the government targeted him as part of a crackdown on academics with ties to China.
“Isn’t it troubling that Dr. Lieber’s work was all public and for the benefit of the world, but he’s facing criminal charges for it?” Mukasey said. “Almost everyone got what they wanted. The National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense got to keep Dr. Lieber’s grant research; Harvard got to keep their millions of dollars in grant money. The FBI got its big case after working hard one day, but Charlie Lieber got left holding the bag.”
He argued that Lieber was transparent about his collaboration with the Wuhan university, which was detailed in publications posted on the Internet. He said the case was triggered by Internet searches of Lieber’s work and argued it was “sort of the prosecution by Google.”
But, Assistant US Attorney Jason Casey told jurors, “You don’t have to speculate or guess whether the defendant made false statements,” adding that they had seen a video of Lieber’s interview with the FBI after his January 2020 arrest where he admitted what he had done.
“He wanted to win a Nobel Prize,” Casey said. “He wanted to be recognized for what he’d done. He thought he’d go to China and link up with the Thousand Talents Program and accomplish those things.”
During the FBI interview, Lieber said “that’s pretty damning” when agents confronted him with a five-year agreement he had signed in 2011 with the Wuhan university, which agreed to pay him up $50,000 a month, plus $158,000 in living expenses. He was also offered about $1.5 million to set up a joint Harvard-Wuhan research lab at the Chinese university, according to the agreement.
Jurors were shown video clips of the interview, where Lieber described traveling from Wuhan to Boston with bags of cash he was paid, totaling between $50,000 and $100,000, money he admitted he never declared to the Internal Revenue Service.
E-mails Lieber exchanged with professors at Wuhan showed he asked to receive half of his payments in cash and wanted the rest deposited into a Chinese bank account.
At the time, Lieber was the principal investigator for the Lieber Research Group at Harvard, which received more than $15 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense and was required to disclose funding received from foreign institutions or governments, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors told jurors it wasn’t a crime for Lieber to accept the money from Wuhan university, but he knew he was obligated to disclose it and deliberately hid it from authorities.
Jurors found Lieber failed to disclose the information to Harvard and the federal government and also allegedly failed to comply with Internal Revenue Service regulations on overseas payments.
Lieber told investigators he didn’t do it for the money. He described himself as “younger and stupid” when he agreed to accept the money and believed his collaboration with the university would boost his recognition by encouraging other scientists to build on work he had pioneered in the 1990s.
“This is embarrassing,” Lieber told the agents. “Every scientist wants a Nobel Prize.”
Lieber is the first academic prosecuted under the China Initiative to be convicted at trial, while eight have had their cases dismissed and eight have pleaded guilty, according to Law360. Critics say the program has discouraged US scientists from collaborating with their peers in other countries and unfairly targeted Chinese scientists and researchers.