A year after Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Gang Chen was arrested as part of a sweeping Justice Department campaign aimed at preventing China from stealing US technology, a judge Thursday granted a request by federal prosecutors to drop all charges against him “in the interests of justice.”
US District Judge Patti B. Saris dismissed a four-count indictment charging Chen, 57, with wire fraud, failing to report a Chinese bank account, and making a false statement on his tax return. Chen, a naturalized US citizen born in China, had been accused of failing to disclose contracts, appointments, and awards he had received in China when applying for a grant from the US Department of Energy five years ago to conduct research at MIT.
“As a result of our continued investigation, the government obtained additional information bearing on the materiality of the defendant’s alleged omissions,” prosecutors wrote in a motion. “Having assessed the evidence as a whole in light of the information, the government can no longer meet its burden of proof at trial. Dismissal of the indictment is therefore in the interests of justice.”
The government’s decision to abandon the high-profile case marked a major setback for the Justice Department’s China Initiative, launched under the Trump Administration in 2018 to root out spies and crack down on economic espionage and the theft of trade secrets. But critics say it has focused too heavily on allegations of grant fraud by researchers and attempted to criminalize routine collaborations between American universities and Chinese entities.
Chen, in a statement, criticized the campaign as “terribly misguided.”
“I want to thank the many friends, colleagues, and family that supported me during this terrible year,” he said. “While I am relieved that my ordeal is over, I am mindful that this terribly misguided China Initiative continues to bring unwarranted fear to the academic community and other scientists still face charges.”
Chen has been a professor at MIT since 2001, was head of its mechanical engineering department from 2013 to 2018, and is director of the MIT Pappalardo Micro and Nano Engineering Laboratory. Before working at MIT, he was a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and Duke University.
The case fell apart when a high-ranking Department of Energy official recently told investigators that Chen wasn’t required to disclose the information he is accused of omitting, and even if he had included it in his grant proposal, it would likely not have impacted the government’s decision to fund his research, according to several people familiar with the investigation.
“The government finally acknowledged what we have said all along: Professor Gang Chen is an innocent man,” said Chen’s lawyer, Robert Fisher. “Our defense was never based on any legal technicalities. Our defense was this: Gang did not commit any of the offenses he was charged with.”
“After fighting this wayward prosecution for the past year, Gang is excited to get back to the teaching and the science he loves so dearly,” Fisher added.
Fisher said Chen disclosed everything he was supposed to when applying for the grant on MIT’s behalf and never lied to anyone. He thanked MIT for standing by Chen over the past year as he fought the case. The school placed Chen on paid leave after his arrest, but publicly defended him and paid for his legal costs.
In a message sent to the MIT community Thursday, MIT President L. Rafael Reif said “All of us who know Gang are deeply relieved.”
He noted that Chen’s ordeal began in January 2020, weeks before the pandemic, when Customs and Border Protection agents stopped him at Logan International Airport on his return from a trip to China and seized his laptop and cell phone. A year later he was indicted.
“It is difficult to reconcile and accept the pain and anguish that such good people, people we are proud and fortunate to know, have endured over the last two years,” he said. “And of course, this case has also caused ongoing distress throughout our community, particularly for Gang’s friends, students and colleagues, and for those across MIT and elsewhere who are of Chinese descent.
“Having had faith in Gang from the beginning, we can all be grateful for a just outcome to a damaging process. We are eager for his full return to our community.”
The government had alleged that Chen failed to disclose contracts, appointments, and awards he had received from entities in China when he applied for a $2.7 million research grant for MIT from the US Department of Energy in 2017 and again two years later when providing a progress report about the grant. They alleged he was required to disclose, among other things, that he had served as an adviser to the Chinese government, a development company, and the board at China’s Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech), which was collaborating with MIT on a research project.
In a statement, US Attorney Rachael Rollins said that prosecutors had “concluded that we can no longer meet our burden of proof at trial.”
“As prosecutors, we have an obligation in every matter we pursue to continually examine the facts while being open to receiving and uncovering new information. We understand that our charging decisions deeply impact people’s lives,” she said. “As United States Attorney, I will always encourage the prosecutors in our office to engage in this type of rigorous and continued review at every stage of a proceeding. Today’s dismissal is a result of that process and is in the interests of justice.”
In court filings last summer, Chen’s lawyers argued that the government had failed to investigate the allegations thoroughly before indicting Chen and the case “was rushed upon the political motivations of an outgoing US Attorney,” It was a reference to former US attorney Andrew Lelling, who left the office last February and was on the steering committee for the China Initiative.
On Thursday, Lelling said such claims were “completely false.”
“We absolutely brought the case in good faith,” Lelling said. “At the time, ironically, we thought it was a particularly good case.”
But he said he supported the decision to dismiss the charges because “it appears they found new information that would prevent them from winning the case at trial.”
“When that happens you have to do the right thing,” he said.
Last month, after Harvard University professor Charles Lieber became the first academic convicted at trial under the China Initiative, Lelling said the government should stop targeting researchers and focus on cases involving espionage and the theft of trade secrets.
Lelling said the prosecution of about two dozen academics across the country as part of the initiative was justified, but that the government needed to reassess its strategy moving forward after achieving “general deterrence among academic researchers.”
Before Lieber’s conviction, at least eight other academics had pleaded guilty, while eight others had their cases dismissed. One case went to trial and ended with an acquittal.
Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.