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BOSTON — Lawyers for Harvard professor Charles M. Lieber, who is accused of lying to federal investigators about his ties to China, mounted a dramatic defense of the renowned chemist in federal court Wednesday, calling the government’s proof against him “mangled” and “misguided.”
Lieber, whose trial began Tuesday, faces six felony charges related to his involvement with the Thousand Talents Program, a state-sponsored Chinese recruitment initiative. Prosecutors allege Lieber concealed his involvement with Chinese institutions to government agencies.
The trial is widely seen by experts as a major test of the Department of Justice’s China Initiative, an anti-espionage crackdown that began under the Trump administration. Some critics — including the former U.S. Attorney who first brought charges against Lieber, Andrew E. Lelling — allege that the initiative has strayed from its original goals. Others have accused the initiative of racial profiling.
Marc L. Mukasey, Lieber’s lead defense attorney, argued before a packed courtroom that the government lacks evidence proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Lieber made false statements to investigators.
“This is not about Charlie and China. This case is about careless conduct in Cambridge,” Mukasey said. “The people who the government will call as witnesses in this case didn’t even write down the statements that Charlie is on trial for.”
Federal prosecutors said in their opening statement that Lieber made false statements about his ties with the TTP in an interview with the Department of Defense in 2018, as well as to Harvard in the following year, which caused the University to mislead the National Institutes of Health.
“This case is about false statements, false tax returns, and an unreported bank account in China,” James R. Drabick, an Assistant U.S. Attorney, told jurors.
The second day of trial focused largely on an interview in which Lieber allegedly told Harvard administrators that he had never been a member of the TTP. Jennifer A. Ponting, a former Harvard compliance officer, interviewed Lieber in 2019 following an NIH inquiry.
Ponting testified that Lieber denied involvement with the TTP in their interview, leading the school to send a letter to the NIH falsely stating that Lieber was not involved with the program.
She said that Lieber reviewed and proposed changes to the NIH letter, but the University did not include all of his requested edits in the final version sent to the NIH.
With jurors out of the room, Lieber’s lawyers claimed that a set of notes taken by a different Harvard employee who was present during the conversation showed that the school had “doctored and meddled with” Lieber’s initial statement before submitting it to the NIH.
Mukasey said the final letter to the agency did not reflect Lieber’s original answers, which he said were “much more nuanced.” Ultimately, the judge admitted the notes into evidence, following testimony from Ponting that she herself did not take notes during the meeting.
During cross-examination by defense attorney Torrey K. Young, Ponting said there were elements of Lieber’s statement that were omitted from the NIH letter.
Prosecutors later questioned Harvard’s former sciences dean, Jeremy Bloxham, about a discussion he had with Lieber regarding a laboratory at the Wuhan University of Technology that bore Harvard’s name. Bloxham said he became aware of the lab in 2014 after he was sent a photo of it, including a plaque with Lieber’s name.
Bloxham said the primary issue from an administrator’s standpoint was the lab’s trademark infringement — including unauthorized use of the University’s name — not Lieber’s work with the university itself, which Bloxham described as typical for a professor. He added that the subject of the TTP did not come up during his conversation with Lieber.
The first day of the trial, which occurred on Tuesday, consisted primarily of jury selection. Judge Rya W. Zobel ’53 ended Wednesday’s trial at 1 p.m., postponing further testimony until Thursday.
Throughout the first day of statements and witness testimonies, Mukasey repeatedly characterized the government’s allegations as unsubstantiated, maintaining that Lieber was unfairly targeted by the Justice Department’s China Initiative.
“If you’re going to blow into somebody’s office at 6:30 in the morning, handcuff them in the back, send 25 agents to their house, and bring the full force of the U.S. government down on them because you think they made false statements, then you damned well better have those statements,” Mukasey said.
—Staff writer Andy Z. Wang contributed reporting.
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