WASHINGTON – A NASA researcher and Texas A&M University professor has been charged with accepting federal grant money while hiding work he was doing for a university established by the Chinese government as well as his affiliation with Chinese-owned companies.
Zhengdong Cheng faces charges of wire fraud, conspiracy and false statements, according to a criminal complaint released by the Justice Department on Monday. He was arrested Sunday.
The case against Cheng is part of a pattern of Justice Department prosecutions against researchers at American universities who are accused of concealing their professional relationships with Chinese institutions. The Trump administration has been particularly concerned that professors could exploit their ties to China, and their participation in talent recruitment programs, to steal intellectual property for Beijing's economic benefit.
Prosecutors accuse 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 fund 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. He served, for instance, as director of a soft matter institute at a technology university in Guangdong, China that was established by China's Ministry of Education and he jointly formed a technology company dedicated to the design of microfluidic chips, according to the Justice Department.
And he participated in talent recruitment programs linked to the Chinese government that the U.S. says are meant to entice professors at American universities to steal cutting-edge research that can be provided to China.
“Your affiant believes that Cheng hid his association with China, Chinese-owned companies, and Chinese universities, which, according to NASA officials, if known to NASA, would have prohibited him from participating in the NASA grant and receiving U.S. Government funding through that grant," an FBI agent wrote in charging documents.
John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M system, said the university worked closely with the FBI on this case, “and we gladly will work with them again as needed.
“No one in higher education takes security as seriously as we do at The Texas A&M University System,” Sharp said in a statement. “In fact, we have received several awards from the Department of Defense’s Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency, including one just last month.”
Cheng's voicemail box at the university was full and could not accept messages, and it was not immediately clear if he had a lawyer.
The Justice Department will “continue seeking to bring participate in these talent programs to light," Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the department's top national security official, said in a statement.
U.S. Attorney Ryan Patrick, the top federal prosecutor for the Southern District of Texas, said the talent recruitment programs exploit “our open and free universities."
“China is building an economic and academic institutions with bricks stolen from others all around the world," Patrick said in a statement.
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