Skip to main contentSkip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
AP

Professor, NASA researcher pleads guilty in China ties case

A NASA researcher and Texas A&M University professor pleaded guilty to charges related to hiding his ties to a university created by the Chinese government while accepting federal grant money

  • Updated
  • 0

HOUSTON (AP) — A NASA researcher and Texas A&M University professor pleaded guilty to charges related to hiding his ties to a university created by the Chinese government while accepting federal grant money.

Zhengdong Cheng pleaded guilty to two counts — violation of NASA regulations and falsifying official documents — during a hearing in Houston federal court on Thursday.

Cheng's conviction was part of a program called the China Initiative, which was first started under the Trump administration. But in February, the Justice Department abandoned the program after complaints it chilled academic collaboration and contributed to anti-Asian bias. The department had also endured high-profile setbacks in individual prosecutions, resulting in the dismissal of multiple criminal cases against academic researchers in the last year. The Justice Department said it planned to impose a higher bar for such prosecutions.

Cheng had originally been charged with wire 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 Judge Andrew Hanen sentenced Cheng to the time he had already served during his pretrial incarceration — about 13 months.

Cheng also agreed to pay restitution of $86,876 and pay a fine of $20,000.

Philip Hilder, Cheng's attorney said the professor was “relieved that this unfortunate chapter of his life is behind."

But Hilder was critical of the China Initiative program, saying while its original purpose was “to fight economic espionage ... that was not the case in his matter."

“The China Initiative ... has now been phased out as a Justice Department priority. The overall mission stays the same, to ferret out economic espionage, but the focus is to target wrongdoers by their deeds and not by their ethnicity," Hilder said.

Prosecutors accused Cheng, who was hired by Texas A&M in 2004, of concealing his work in China even as his team of researchers received nearly $750,000 in grant money for space research. NASA is restricted from using funds for any collaboration or coordination with China, Chinese institutions or any Chinese-owned company.

But, prosecutors say, Cheng violated those restrictions by maintaining multiple undisclosed associations with China, including serving as director of a soft matter institute at a technology university in Guangdong, China, that was established by China’s Ministry of Education.

“Texas A&M and the Texas A&M System take security very seriously, and we constantly are on the look-out for vulnerabilities, especially when national security is involved,” John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M System, said in a statement Friday. “We will continue to work with our federal partners to keep our intellectual property secure and out of the hands of foreign governments who seek to do us harm.”

Cheng was fired from Texas A&M shortly after his arrest. Texas A&M is located about 90 miles (145 kilometers) northwest of Houston.

Hilder said Cheng loves academia but is evaluating his options on what he does next.

“He’s a proud, loyal United States citizen and he looks forward to getting back to being a productive member of our society," Hilder said.

In a tweet Friday, FBI Houston Special Agent in Charge James Smith said his agency “prioritizes investigating threats to academia as part of our commitment to preventing intellectual property theft at U.S. research institutions and companies."

In February, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen told reporters he believed the initiative was prompted by genuine national security concerns. He said he did not believe investigators had targeted professors on the basis of ethnicity, but he also said he had to be responsive to concerns he heard, including from Asian American groups.


Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at https://twitter.com/juanlozano70

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

0 Comments
* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Officials said a 60-ton crane being used to remove a video display board from a downtown Oklahoma City building toppled onto the building that houses several news offices. The crane's operator suffered minor injuries in the Saturday afternoon accident. Two other men working in the bucket of a small crane and the building's occupants weren't injured. Oklahoma City police Detective Jonathan LaPuzza said the collapse caused some structural damage to the building that houses The Oklahoman newspaper, the Oklahoma Watch news website and television station KWTV. He said the extent and cost of the damage couldn't be determined immediately.

Scientists are still trying to understand the effects of the Tongan volcano eruption earlier this year. The eruption sent huge amounts of water into the atmosphere. How much water? According to a study published Thursday, at least 50 million metric tons of vapor. Most volcanic blasts send up clouds of sulfur that cool off the Earth. But the blast in Tonga started under the ocean and sent up much more water than usual. Scientists say that water could act as a greenhouse gas and cause a small amount of warming in the next few years. They're hoping to figure out just how much and for how long.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has declared a state of emergency across his entire state as Tropical Storm Ian gains strength over the Caribbean and is forecast to become a major hurricane in coming days. An emergency order DeSantis initially issued for two dozen counties was expanded to a statewide warning on Saturday. The governor is encouraging residents and localities to prepare for the storm, which could lash large swaths of Florida. The National Hurricane Center said Ian is forecast to rapidly power up to a hurricane by Sunday and a major hurricane as soon as late Monday. It's expected to move over western Cuba before approaching Florida in the middle of next week.

Authorities in southern New Jersey say at least two people were killed amid multiple crashes at a pop-up car rally over the weekend. NJ.com reports that Wildwood Mayor Pete Byron told NJ Advance Media on Sunday that there were a series of car crashes related to the “unsanctioned” car meet-up event. Byron said the two victims “were in a golf cart” but weren’t believed to be part of the event. No further information about the crash or the victims was available. Officials had issued warnings earlier about what they called an unsanctioned car rally separate from the Fall Classic Car Show taking place in the city.

Authorities say three suspects were arrested this week in connection with a brazen smash-and-grab robbery where $5 million worth of jewelry was stolen from a high-end Beverly Hills store earlier this year. Up to six robbers wielding sledgehammers smashed display cases and stole precious gems, designer watches and necklaces from Luxury Jewels of Beverly Hills during the middle of the day on March 22. Officials say police and FBI investigators used surveillance footage to track down three of the suspects, who were arrested Wednesday after officers served search warrants at separate locations. A fourth suspect was already in custody for an unrelated offense.

A federal agency says an environmental review for a proposed copper mine in Arizona falls short on details about water and the potential impacts of climate change. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management produced the report at the request of the U.S. Forest Service. It came after the Forest Service pulled the environmental review to consult further with Native American tribes on what could be one of the largest copper mines in the U.S. Resolution Copper has touted the economic benefit and jobs the mining operation would bring if it moves forward. The publication of an environmental review would pave the way for Forest Service land to be transferred to the company.

CMT will honor Carly Pearce, Cody Johnson, Kane Brown, Luke Combs and Walker Hayes as their 2022 Artists of the Year during a ceremony in October. Pearce, Johnson and Hayes are first-time artists of the year, while Brown and Combs come back for their third time. The show includes tributes by other artists for each star who has had hit songs or albums and greatly impacted country music. The show will air on Oct. 14 on CMT. Brown and Combs are among the top selling artists in country music, packing out arenas and stadiums and landing multiple hits on the charts.

A U.S. judge in West Texas has ruled unconstitutional a federal law banning those under felony indictments from buying guns. U.S. District Judge David Counts, whom then-President Donald Trump appointed to the federal bench in Pecos, Texas, dismissed a federal indictment against Jose Gomez Quiroz that had charged him under the federal ban. Quiroz was under a state burglary indictment when he tried to buy a handgun and challenged the ensuing federal charge. Counts acknowledges the case's “real-world consequences” and that valid public policy and safety concerns exist. However, he says precedents hold the Second Amendment as definite.

Michelle Obama plans a six-city tour this fall in support of her new book, “The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times,” beginning mid-November in Washington. D.C. and ending a month later in Los Angeles. Obama will open at the Warner Theatre in Washington on Nov. 15, the day her book is released. She will then travel to Philadelphia’s The Met, Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, the Chicago Theatre and San Francisco’s Masonic, before closing at the YouTube Theater in Los Angeles. The venues for her current tour have seating capacities ranging roughly from 2,000 to 6,500. As with “Becoming,” Obama will speak at each city with guest moderators, to be announced later.

Former President Donald Trump’s latest legal woes focus on allegations that he and his company inflated the value of about two dozen properties and other assets, including his penthouse on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and his posh Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. New York Attorney General Leticia James asserted in a lawsuit filed Wednesday that the Trump Organization, with the aid of the former president and his three oldest children, used deceptive schemes to overstate the value of 23 properties and other assets. The complaint says Trump advertised his triplex home in Trump Tower as being 30,000 square feet, when it was actually just a third of that size. Based on the alleged misrepresentation, the apartment was valued at $327 million in 2015.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

Breaking News

News Alert