The former chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry Department accused of hiding Chinese ties had admitted to taking tens of thousands of dollars from China, video footage presented in federal court on Dec. 17 shows.
The footage, shot during an interrogation by federal investigators of nanoscientist Charles Lieber, was played for jurors on the fourth day of the trial regarding Lieber’s alleged false statements about China funding.
The 62-year-old Harvard professor had maintained that he didn’t take payments from a Chinese university, except for compensation of his travel costs to China. But he shifted his story quickly after FBI agents Robert Plumb and Kara Spice presented him with copies of evidence, including a bilingual contract he signed with the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) in 2011.
“That’s pretty damning,” Lieber, dressed in a blue jacket, told the agents at the campus police station during a three-hour interrogation, which took place on the day of Lieber’s arrest nearly two years ago, local media outlets reported. “Now that you bring it up, yes, I do remember.”
The five-year agreement described Lieber as a “strategic scientist” at the Chinese school, which entitled him to $50,000 per month with approximately $158,000 in living expenses. It also alluded to his future involvement with China’s Thousand Talents Plan, a state-run program to solicit top scientific and specialized experts from around the world.
Later in the interview, FBI agents showed Lieber an email that he had written asking Wuhan University to pay half of his salary in cash and to deposit the other half into a Chinese bank account.
“I can’t even believe I did this,” Lieber said in response, according to local media reports. “It’s my mistake, and obviously I made a mistake.”
Lieber said he likely made no more than six trips to China around 2012 and was paid between $10,000 and $20,000 each time he made the trip, according to local media reports. He had spent the money—a total that he estimated to be between $50,000 and $100,000—on groceries and living expenses, such as housekeeping.
The payments were in $100 bills that Lieber brought back in his luggage, he said. He didn’t declare them at customs nor did he pay any taxes on the money.
“If I brought it back, I didn’t declare it, and that’s illegal,” he told the FBI agents.
In the recording, Lieber repeatedly said he couldn’t recall the precise amount of money he had received from Wuhan University, blaming the lapses on his “selective memory,” according to local media outlets.
The Chinese bank account set up for him had a balance equivalent to $200,000 under Lieber’s name as of 2014, which the scientist said he never tapped into, in part because of his deteriorating health and a recent cancer diagnosis.
Since 2008, the Lieber Research Group at Harvard University, which had been led by Lieber, has received more than $15 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Defense.
Lieber was a contractual participant of the Thousand Talents Plan between at least 2012 and 2017, a court document shows. While affiliation with the Chinese recruitment program isn’t itself illegal, it constitutes a foreign conflict of interest that researchers are required to disclose before receiving federal grants.
Lieber said it looked like he had been “very dishonest” when the Department of Defense questioned him about his involvement in the talent program in 2018.
“I wasn’t completely transparent by any stretch of the imagination,” he told the agents, according to the recording.
Lieber said what had motivated him to get into the talent program wasn’t money, but a desire to get recognized. He was “younger and stupid” at the time, he said.
“I’m not exactly competitive, but if I get other people to pursue an aspect based on the research I did, there is a trickle-down,” he said, according to local media reports. “Every scientist wants a Nobel Prize.”
The Harvard professor later sought to distance himself from the Wuhan collaboration, including by canceling a trip to the university in June 2015.
In a 2018 email to a research colleague two days after he was interviewed by the Department of Defense, Lieber expressed concern about a Chinese web page listing him as directing the Wuhan research lab.
“I lost a lot of sleep worrying about all of these things last night and want to start taking steps to correct sooner than later,” he wrote in the email, which was presented at the Dec. 17 court hearing. “I will be careful about what I discuss with Harvard University, and none of this will be shared with government investigators at this time.”
However, in the interrogation, Lieber insisted that he hadn’t done anything wrong—except that he “shouldn’t have had an agreement and accepted money.”
“You’re right, it was wrong,” he said when FBI agents asked why he decided to conceal the information from Harvard and U.S. authorities. “I was afraid of being arrested, like I am right now.”
Lieber is facing six counts of federal charges, including lying to federal authorities, filing false income tax returns, and failing to report on his foreign bank and financial accounts. He has pleaded not guilty to all six charges.
Learner Liu contributed to this report.