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Senior NASA scientist pleads guilty to lying about China ties

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Prosecutors say the NASA scientist was part of a program by the Chinese government to recruit individuals with access to intellectual property

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A senior NASA scientist pleaded guilty to lying about his participation in a Chinese program that recruits "individuals with access to or knowledge of foreign technology or intellectual property."

Meyya Meyyappan of Pacifica, California, pleaded guilty to one count of making false statements in a New York federal court on Wednesday. Meyyappan, 66, entered his plea before U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel in Manhattan federal court, the U.S. Department of Justice said Wednesday.

Meyyappan has been employed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration since 1996, and has been a "chief scientist for Exploration Technology at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley" since 2006, according to Meyyappan's profile on the NASA website. Previously, Meyyappan served as the director of the Center for Nanotechnology at Ames.

"Dr. Meyyappan is a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Electrochemical Society (ECS), American Vacuum Society (AVS), Materials Research Society (MRS), Institute of Physics (IOP), American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), American Institute of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), National Academy of Inventors, and the California Council of Science and Technology," the space agency said.

In October, Meyyappan was interviewed by the FBI, the NASA Office of Inspector General, and the United States Attorney's Office.

"During that interview, Meyyappan falsely stated, among other things, that he was not a member of the Thousand Talents Program and that he did not hold a professorship at a Chinese university," the DOJ press release stated. "In truth and in fact, Meyyappan was a member of the Thousand Talents Program and held a professorship at a Chinese university, funded by the Chinese government."

The DOJ stated that Meyyappan "participated in China's Thousand Talents Program, a program established by the Chinese government to recruit individuals with access to or knowledge of foreign technology or intellectual property, and held professorships at universities in China, South Korea, and Japan, and failed to disclose these associations and positions to NASA and the U.S. Office of Government Ethics."

NASA OIG Special Agent in Charge Mark J. Zielinski stated, "Certain NASA employees are required to disclose affiliations with foreign entities in order to protect NASA's intellectual property. Failure to do so could allow malicious foreign actors unauthorized access to American taxpayer funded technologies. We thank the FBI and the USAO, SDNY for their assistance throughout this investigation."

Acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said, "Meyya Meyyappan held a trusted position at NASA, with access to valuable intellectual property. In violation of the terms of his employment and relevant laws and regulations, Meyyappan failed to disclose participation in a Chinese government recruitment program, and subsequently lied about it to NASA investigators, FBI agents, and our Office. Now, having admitted his crime, Meyyappan awaits sentencing."

Meyyappan is scheduled to be sentenced on June 16, and faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

In May, the DOJ announced that a former Cleveland Clinic employee had been arrested. Dr. Qing Wang "lied to receive more than $3.6 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health while also collecting money for the same research from the Chinese government," NPR reported.

"It is also alleged that Dr. Wang participated in the Thousand Talents Program, a program established by the Chinese government to recruit individuals with access to or knowledge of foreign technology and intellectual property," the DOJ statement said.

In June, a prominent scientist at Harvard University was indicted by the Justice Department for lying to federal authorities about his participation in China's Thousand Talents Program.

Dr. Charles Lieber, the former chair of Harvard University's Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, lied to the U.S. government about his position as "Strategic Scientist" at the Wuhan University of Technology in China, according to prosecutors. He was allegedly paid a salary of up to $50,000 a month to set up the laboratory for the Wuhan University of Technology, plus was allotted additional living expenses of up to $158,000.

Lieber has pleaded not guilty.

In July, the Department of Justice claimed that a NASA researcher and University of Arkansas professor had ties to the Chinese government. Simon Saw-Teong Ang, was indicted by a federal grand jury on 42 counts of wire fraud and two counts of passport fraud.

Court documents show that Ang had conversations with a researcher in China about his involvement in the Thousand Talents Program.

"Not many people here know I am [a Thousand talents program scholar] but if this leaks out, my job here will be in deep troubles," Ang reportedly wrote. "I have to be very careful or else I may be out of my job from this university."

FBI Director Chris Wray gave a speech at the Hudson Institute in July, where he delivered a warning about the Thousand Talents Program.

"Through its talent recruitment programs, like the so-called Thousand Talents Program, the Chinese government tries to entice scientists to secretly bring our knowledge and innovation back to China — even if that means stealing proprietary information or violating our export controls and conflict-of-interest rules," Wray said.

"The greatest long-term threat to our nation's information and intellectual property, and to our economic vitality, is the counterintelligence and economic espionage threat from China," Wray said during the speech. "It's a threat to our economic security — and by extension, to our national security."

In November 2019, the U.S. Senate released a report titled, "Threats to the U.S. Research Enterprise: China's Talent Recruitment Plans," which outlined dangers presented by Chinese recruitment organizations, including the Thousand Talents Program.

Launched in 2008, the Thousand Talents Plan incentivizes individuals engaged in research and development in the United States to transmit the knowledge and research they gain here to China in exchange for salaries, research funding, lab space, and other incentives. China unfairly uses the American research and expertise it obtains for its own economic and military gain. In recent years, federal agencies have discovered talent recruitment plan members who downloaded sensitive electronic research files before leaving to return to China, submitted false information when applying for grant funds, and willfully failed to disclose receiving money from the Chinese government on U.S. grant applications.

China designed the Thousand Talents Plan to recruit 2,000 high-quality overseas talents, including scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and finance experts. The plan provides salaries, research funding, lab space, and other incentives to lure experts into researching for China. According to one report, by 2017, China dramatically exceeded its recruitment goal, having recruited more than 7,000 "high-end professionals," including several Nobel laureates.

In December, a massive database of nearly 2 million registered Chinese Communist Party members was leaked to the public. The database breach reportedly gave insight into CCP members infiltrating western companies, including businesses in the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom.

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