Former Harvard University professor and world-renowned nanoscientist Charles Lieber was sentenced Wednesday to six months of home confinement for lying to the federal government about his participation in a program designed by the Chinese government to recruit high-level scientists and for failing to report payments on his taxes.
US District Judge Rya Zobel granted a defense request to spare Lieber, who is battling cancer, a prison term, instead sentencing him to the two days he already served in jail after his arrest three years ago. She also ordered him to pay a $50,000 fine, and $33,600 in restitution for the back taxes he owed.
As Lieber’s wife and dozens of former colleagues and students he had mentored looked on from a packed courtroom, Lieber apologized “for dragging my family through this ordeal” and broke into sobs as he said the criminal case had placed a heavy burden on his late mother during the last months of her life.
“I regret the things that brought me here,” said Lieber, 64, of Lexington. “I lost my job, my career and my freedom and I sincerely hope I am not going to lose what remains of my life given my poor health.”
Lieber’s attorney, Marc Mukasey, argued during the hearing in federal court in Boston that Lieber would be “a sitting duck for disease” if he was sentenced to prison because he has follicular lymphoma, a blood cancer for which there is no cure, and is immunocompromised.
Lieber declined the judge’s request to take his mask off while speaking in court, noting that his doctor has advised him to remain masked while in public. She asked him to “shout” so she could hear him.
Assistant US Attorney Jason Casey had urged the judge to sentence Lieber to 90 days in prison, arguing that Lieber “abused the trust of Harvard” and US government agencies that sponsored his research by hiding his financial ties to China over seven years.
“This was not aberrant conduct,” Casey said. “He was somebody who was willing to lie and to deceive in order to protect the thing that mattered to him most and that was his career.”
However, Mukasey argued that the government’s description of Lieber and the case against him was “callous” and misleading.
“He admits the mistakes that he made,” Mukasey said. “He accepts responsibility. But he is not the greedy villain that the government talks about.”
Lieber was chairman of Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology when he was arrested by the FBI three years ago and charged with lying about his relationship with Wuhan University of Technology in China and the Thousand Talents Program, created by the Chinese government more than a decade ago to recruit high-level scientists. He resigned from Harvard in February.
A jury convicted him in December 2021 of two counts of making false statements to the government for denying he had participated in the Thousand Talents Program; 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.
Prosecutors presented evidence at trial that Lieber signed a five-year agreement in 2011 with the Chinese university, which agreed to pay him $50,000 a month and $158,000 in living expenses. He also allegedly received $1.5 million to set up a joint Harvard-Wuhan research lab at the Chinese university.
Lieber’s participation in the Chinese program was not a crime on its own, but prosecutors alleged that Lieber failed to disclose the information to Harvard and the federal government and also failed to comply with Internal Revenue Service regulations on overseas payments.
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 court filings. Instead, prosecutors alleged he repeatedly denied receiving any foreign funding.
During the trial, prosecutors showed jurors a video of Lieber’s interview with the FBI after his arrest in January 2020, where he admitted what he had done. He 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 IRS.
Lieber told investigators he didn’t carry out the work for the money. He said he believed his collaboration with the Chinese 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.”
On Wednesday, Mukasey told the judge that Lieber is “a patriotic and loyal American,” yet was unwittingly swept up as part of the China Initiative, a Justice Department program that was launched in 2018 to target economic espionage and the theft of technology and trade secrets. Critics complained that it had been widely used to target researchers and had discouraged US scientists from collaborating with their peers in other countries, particularly China.
Despite Lieber’s conviction, Mukasey told the judge that Harvard and the government agencies that funded his research continue to promote and tout his scientific achievements on their websites.