👨‍🔬 Harvard Professor Accused of Lying to FBI About Ties to China Seeks Legal Defense Fees from University

This week the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court dismissed an appeal made by prominent Harvard chemistry professor Charles M. Lieber in his lawsuit against the university for payment of criminal defense fees.

The Department of Justice alleges that Professor Lieber made a false statement to investigators from the Department of Defense concerning his relationship with China’s Wuhan University of Technology (“WUT”) and the country’s “Chinese Talent Program.”  The DOJ also alleges that Lieber caused Harvard to make false statements to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

According to the FBI’s affidavit in support of its criminal complaint against Lieber,

The “Chinese Talent Programs” refer collectively to various plans designed by the Chinese Government to attract, recruit, and cultivate high-level scientific talent in furtherance of China’s scientific development, economic prosperity, and national security…The Chinese Talent programs have rewarded individuals for stealing proprietary information and violating expert controls.

The same affidavit states that

Based on the evidence gathered to date [January 2020], LIEBER was a “Strategic Scientist” at WUT and a contractual participant in China’s Thousand Talents Plan for significant periods between at least 2012 and 2017. The terms of LIEBER’s Thousand Talents contract called for LIEBER to be paid up to $50,000 per month in salary and approximately $150,000 per year for living and personal expenses by WUT. LIEBER was also awarded more than $1.5 million by WUT and the Chinese government to establish a research lab and conduct research at WUT.

It’s alleged that Lieber told officials “he was never asked to participate in the program” despite evidence to the contrary.  Additionally, when NIH questioned Havard about Lieber’s involvement with WUT and the Chinese Talent Program, FBI agents believe “that LIEBER caused Harvard to make materially false and misleading statements.”  Based on the allegations, Lieber has been accused of violating 18 U.S.C. § 1001(a)(2).

Lieber sought payment for his legal defense through an indemnification policy included in his contract with Harvard.  The university’s chief administrative office denied payments, however, due to certain exceptions in Lieber’s contract.

In response, Lieber filed a civil lawsuit against the university in Middlesex Superior Court.  The superior court judge denied Lieber’s motion for a preliminary injunction ordering Harvard to advance the funds at issue.  Appeals were made to both the Appeals Court and the Supreme Judicial Court.  On November 15, 2021 the SJC issued a decision dismissing the petition made to them.  According to the court’s ruling,

Lieber pursued two separate avenues of relief, perhaps as a precautionary measure, but where the issues raised…are already before the full court [i.e., the Appeals Court] on direct review, there is no need for us to consider Lieber’s appeal from the denial of that petition.

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