Zhengdong Cheng pleaded guilty to two counts – violating NASA regulations and falsifying official documents – during a court hearing.
A NASA researcher and Texas A&M University professor has pleaded guilty to charges of concealing his ties to a university set up by the Chinese government while accepting federal grant money.
Zhengdong Cheng pleaded guilty to two counts — violating NASA regulations and falsifying official documents — during a hearing in Houston federal court Thursday.
Cheng’s conviction was part of a program called the China Initiative, which first began under the Trump administration. But in February, the Department of Justice abandoned the program after complaints that it had halted academic collaborations and contributed to anti-Asia bias. The administration has also suffered notable setbacks in individual prosecutions, leading to the dismissal of several criminal cases against academic researchers in the past year. The Justice Department said it plans to impose higher standards for such prosecutions.
Cheng was originally charged with fraud, conspiracy and false statements when he was arrested in August 2020. But he pleaded guilty to the new charges as part of an agreement with federal prosecutors.
U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen sentenced Cheng to the length of time he had already served during pretrial detention – about 13 months.
Cheng also agreed to pay $86,876 in compensation and pay a $20,000 fine.
Philip Helder, Ching’s attorney, said the professor “was relieved that this unfortunate chapter of his life had been delayed.”
But Helder criticized China’s initiative programme, saying that while its original goal was to “fight economic espionage… this was not the case for him.”
“China’s initiative … has now been phased out as a priority for the Department of Justice. The overall task remains the same, to detect economic espionage, but the focus is to target offenders by their actions rather than their ethnicity,” Helder said.
Prosecutors accused Cheng, who was hired by Texas A&M in 2004, with concealing his work in China even when his research team received nearly $750,000 in grant money for space research. NASA is prohibited from using the funds for any cooperation or coordination with China, Chinese institutions, or any Chinese-owned company.
But prosecutors say Cheng violated those restrictions by maintaining several undisclosed ties with China, including serving as director of the Institute of Soft Materials at the University of Technology in Guangdong, China, set up by the Chinese Ministry of Education.
“Texas A&M and Texas A&M System take security very seriously, and we are constantly looking for vulnerabilities, especially when it comes to national security,” John Sharp, Texas A&M System advisor, said in a statement Friday. “We will continue to work with our federal partners to keep our intellectual property safe and out of the hands of foreign governments that seek to harm us.”
Cheng was fired from Texas A&M shortly after his arrest. Texas A&M is located approximately 90 miles (145 kilometers) northwest of Houston.
Helder said Cheng loves academia but is weighing his options on what to do next.
“He is a proud and loyal American citizen who looks forward to returning to being a productive member of our community,” Helder said.
In a tweet Friday, Houston FBI Special Agent James Smith said his agency “prioritizes investigation of threats to academia as part of our commitment to prevent intellectual property theft in US research institutions and companies.”
In February, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen told reporters he believed the initiative was motivated by genuine national security concerns. He said he didn’t believe investigators targeted professors on the basis of race, but he also said he should respond to concerns he’d heard, including from Asian American groups.
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