BOSTON — A former Harvard University professor convicted of lying to federal investigators about his ties to a Chinese-run science recruitment program and failing to pay taxes on payments from a Chinese university was sentenced Wednesday to supervised release and ordered to pay more than $83,000 in restitution and fines.
Charles Lieber, 64, was sentenced by Judge Rya Zobel in U.S. District Court in Boston to time served — the two days he spent in jail after his arrest — two years of supervised release — the first six months in home confinement — a $50,000 fine and $33,600 in restitution to the IRS, which has already been paid.
Lieber, the former chair of Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology, was convicted in December 2021 of filing false tax returns, making false statements and failing to file reports for a foreign bank account in China.
“We are grateful for the court’s ruling,” said Lieber’s attorney, Marc Mukasey. “We think it was the appropriate decision so that Charlie can keep up his fight against his severe health issues.”
Prosecutors had recommended three months in prison, a year of probation, a $150,000 fine and restitution to the IRS of $33,600.
Prosecutors said Lieber knowingly lied to Harvard and government agencies about his involvement in China’s Thousand Talents Plan, a program designed to recruit people with knowledge of foreign technology and intellectual property to China, to enhance his career — including the pursuit of a Nobel Prize — and benefit financially.
Lieber denied his involvement during questioning from U.S. authorities, including the National Institutes of Health, which had provided him with millions of dollars in research funding, prosecutors said.
Lieber also concealed his income from the Chinese program on his U.S. tax returns, including $50,000 a month from the Wuhan University of Technology, some of which was paid to him in $100 bills in brown paper packaging, according to prosecutors.
In exchange, they say, Lieber agreed to publish articles, organize international conferences and apply for patents on behalf of the Chinese university.
Lieber’s case was one of the most notable to come out of the U.S. Department of Justice’s China Initiative, started during the Trump administration in 2018 to curb economic espionage from China.
But in February 2022 under the current administration, a decision was made to revamp the program and impose a higher bar for prosecutions after a review based on complaints that it compromised the nation’s competitiveness in research and technology and disproportionally targeted researchers of Asian descent.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen said at the time the department will still “be relentless in defending our country from China,” but would not use the China Initiative label, in part out of recognition of threats from other nations including Russia, Iran and North Korea.
The federal government ended up dismissing multiple cases against researchers or had them thrown out by judges.
Mukasey asked that his client, who retired after his conviction and has a form of incurable blood cancer along with a “destroyed immune system,” be spared prison time because of the dangers of getting sick behind bars, the extraordinary research he as done and the positive effect he has had on countless lives.
“In prison he will be a sitting duck for disease, and will not get the daily medical care that he needs,” he said.
Mukasey read from some of the more than 100 letters of support submitted to the court by Lieber’s family, friends, colleagues, and former students he has mentored. More than two dozen of his supporters crowded the courtroom, some of whom flew in from as far away as California to attend the hearing.
Anqi Zhang, one of Lieber’s former doctoral students who is now doing post-doctoral work in chemical engineering at Stanford University, thinks her mentor’s motives have been misrepresented by the government.
“He’s the best scientist and the best mentor in the world,” she said. “He’s a pure scientist, he worked very hard, and was focused completely on the science.”
Lieber, in a statement read to the court, accepted responsibility and said the last three years of his life have been “horrific.”
“I would like to express my sincere apologies and remorse for my actions,” he said.
Mukasey also stressed that Lieber was never charged with espionage-related offenses; was never accused of misusing grant money; there was no theft or trade of trade secrets or intellectual property; and he did not disclose any proprietary research to the Chinese government or university.
But prosecutor Jason Casey said in court that Lieber “was someone willing to lie and deceive to protect what mattered to him most — and that was his career.” His behavior was not an aberration, but occurred over a period of several years.
As a person of “extraordinary intellect and extraordinary education,” he had the capacity to understand the wrongfulness of his actions, Casey said.
Casey said a three-month period of prison time was appropriate despite Lieber’s health issues because he is in remission and can get proper treatment in a federal prison.
Mukasey called the government’s contentions “callous, misleading, naive and dangerous to (Lieber’s) health” and said his client has been punished enough because of his damaged reputation.
“Please don’t put him in prison where he can’t control his health,” Mukasey told the judge.
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