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National Security investigations focusing on economic espionage charges

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Since late 2017, federal criminal and national security agencies, federal agencies that fund grants, and Congress have all signaled increasing concern about international students and scholars exploiting the open U.S. academic environment for another nation’s gain. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice are leading these investigations, commonly referred to as “research fraud.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio called for an investigation into the Small Business Administration, which awarded funds to a Harvard University professor who also received funding from an entity in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The investigation is part of a larger coordinated effort to examine researchers who received funding from various U.S. government and PRC agencies but failed to disclose the PRC funding as required by U.S. law.

The New York Times reported that more than 200 investigations are started based on the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) belief that biomedical researchers who took NIH funds failed to disclose PRC funding.

Closer to home, the University of Florida recently disclosed to Florida legislators that a 24-year chemistry professor simultaneously, and secretly, ran a business in China, worked for a Chinese university, and received funding from the PRC. Even Moffit Cancer Center executives in Tampa ran afoul of the rule requiring federally funded researchers to disclose receiving funds from a foreign government.

Research Fraud Pursued as Process Crimes

While there are legitimate concerns about whether those of Chinese descent are unfairly targeted by investigations into research fraud, the government’s focus is not limited to those with connections to the PRC. Regardless, these investigations result in civil enforcement actions and criminal prosecutions, many of which rely on process crimes to pursue defendants. Process crimes are offenses aimed at those the government believes interfered with the procedures and administration of justice.

In research fraud investigations, the grant applications and required periodic reporting are complex and sometimes confusing. As a result, law enforcement agents, supporting either criminal or civil investigations, attempt to interview those under investigation to gain admissions to committing research fraud or making false statements to investigators. In previous blogs, we addressed why one should never talk to authorities without a lawyer.

The attention the government and press have given to these investigations does not escape notice by the Department of Justice, especially its National Security Division, which is charged with bringing these cases to court. However, the Department has a checkered past when bringing national security prosecutions. Wen Ho Lee is a Taiwanese American scientist who worked for the University of California at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. A federal grand jury indicted him for stealing U.S. nuclear secrets for the PRC, but Lee ultimately pleaded guilty to only one of the 59 counts in the indictment, admitting to mishandling classified information. The presiding federal judge eventually apologized to Lee for denying him bail and putting him in solitary confinement and excoriated the government for misconduct and misrepresentations to the court. Closer to home was the acquittal of the wife of the terrorist who attacked the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.

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