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BOSTON — Federal officials testified in court Monday that allegedly false statements made by Harvard professor Charles M. Lieber led government agencies to conclude investigations into the chemist and continue funding his research before they could fully explore his ties to China.
Lieber, who was arrested on Harvard’s campus in January 2020, is on trial for allegedly lying to federal investigators about his connections to the Thousand Talents Program, a Chinese government recruitment initiative.
The former Harvard Chemistry chair is also charged with four tax offenses for failing to report income from China and foreign bank accounts to the Internal Revenue Service.
During the fifth day of the trial on Monday, jurors heard from federal officials who investigated Lieber’s TTP affiliations for the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health, both of which provided millions of dollars for his research.
DOD investigator Amy R. Mousseau testified that Lieber said in 2018 he “wasn’t sure how China categorized him” in relation to the TTP. Six years prior to the interview, however, Lieber allegedly signed a contract with the program, which prosecutors presented in court Friday.
Mousseau testified that the Pentagon became concerned about Lieber’s possible China affiliations after receiving “open-source information” that connected him to the TTP in early 2018. She said the DOD believed Lieber may have committed grant fraud in relation to the roughly $3 million he received from the agency. In April of that year, she traveled to Cambridge to interview Lieber on Harvard’s campus.
Following the interview, Mousseau said she closed the DOD investigation because she thought he had been truthful.
“I believed he was a victim of Chinese propaganda,” Mousseau said.
However, during a 2020 FBI interrogation, Lieber told federal agents that he “wasn’t completely transparent” during the interview with Mousseau.
Pressed by Lieber’s lead defense attorney, Marc L. Mukasey, Mousseau said the notes from the interview did not indicate that Lieber had explicitly denied membership in the TTP. She also testified that she does not recall the exact questions she asked Lieber about his China ties.
During his opening statement last Tuesday, Mukasey said the officials who interviewed Lieber “didn’t even write down the statements that Charlie is on trial for.”
Experts and professors who support Lieber have alleged that the Department of Justice’s China Initiative — which Lieber’s investigation fell under — racially targets researchers of Chinese heritage. Pressed by Mukasey, Mousseau said an official from the Naval Research Laboratory raised concerns about the number of Chinese students working in Lieber’s lab, which played a role in the decision to investigate Lieber.
In 2019, the NIH also began investigating Lieber over a potential financial conflict of interest, but the agency ultimately decided not to take action against the scientist. NIH administrator Michael Lauer testified Monday that the agency would have investigated Lieber further if it had been made aware of his involvement with the TTP.
Lauer asked Harvard in November 2018 to conduct an “internal compliance review” of Lieber’s research after receiving information connecting him to the TTP. Lauer said the NIH was “satisfied” with Harvard’s response, which stated that Lieber “represented that he is not and has never been” a TTP member.
Prosecutors say Harvard’s response to the NIH constitutes a false statement from Lieber. Defense attorneys alleged in court last Tuesday that the University “doctored and meddled with” Lieber’s initial statement before sending its response to the NIH.
Lauer said the NIH would have had “lots of questions” if Lieber had informed investigators of his alleged TTP affiliation, adding that researchers who fail to disclose foreign funding may face consequences, including grant termination.
Mousseau, the DOD investigator, also testified that she would have expanded the DOD’s inquiry into Lieber if he had told the agency about an affiliation with the TTP.
Carl L. Goodman, the accountant who filed Lieber’s taxes, testified Monday that the chemist did not inform him of income from the Wuhan University of Technology in 2013 or 2014, when prosecutors say Lieber falsely reported his taxes. Goodman added he only spoke with Lieber’s wife, Jennifer Lieber, when preparing the family’s joint taxes.
Prosecutors allege that Lieber failed to report income he received from WUT on his tax returns in 2013 and 2014. Colleen Ranahan, an IRS revenue agent, testified Monday that Lieber would have owed the government an estimated $7,600 more in 2013 and $15,200 more in 2014 if he had disclosed the alleged income.
As prosecutors questioned Ranahan, fire alarms went off in the courthouse, cutting the day of trial short by several minutes.
—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.
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