HOUSTON — A NASA researcher and Texas A&M University professor has pleaded guilty to charges related to hiding his ties to a university created by the Chinese government while accepting federal grant money.
Zhengdong Cheng pleaded guilty to two counts – violation of NASA regulations and falsifying official documents – during a hearing in Houston federal court on Thursday.
Cheng had originally been charged with wire fraud, conspiracy and false statements when he was arrested in August 2020. But he pleaded guilty to the new charges as part of an agreement with federal prosecutors.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen sentenced Cheng to the time he had already served during his pretrial incarceration – about 13 months.
Cheng also agreed to pay restitution of $86,876 and pay a fine of $20,000.
An attorney for Cheng did not immediately return a call or email seeking comment on Friday.
Prosecutors accused Cheng, who was hired by Texas A&M in 2004, of concealing his work in China even as his team of researchers received nearly $750,000 in grant money for space research. NASA is restricted from using funds for any collaboration or coordination with China, Chinese institutions or any Chinese-owned company.
But, prosecutors say, Cheng violated those restrictions by maintaining multiple undisclosed associations with China, including serving as director of a soft matter institute at a technology university in Guangdong, China, that was established by China’s Ministry of Education.
“Texas A&M and the Texas A&M System take security very seriously, and we constantly are on the look-out for vulnerabilities, especially when national security is involved,” John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M System, said in a statement Friday. “We will continue to work with our federal partners to keep our intellectual property secure and out of the hands of foreign governments who seek to do us harm.”
Cheng was fired from Texas A&M shortly after his arrest. Texas A&M is located about 90 miles (145 kilometers) northwest of Houston.
The case against Cheng is part of a pattern of Justice Department prosecutions against researchers at American universities who are accused of concealing their professional relationships with Chinese institutions.
“The FBI prioritizes investigating threats to academia as part of our commitment to preventing intellectual property theft at U.S. research institutions and companies. We faithfully protect the integrity of federally funded research and prevent the loss of billions of dollars from the American economy by collaborating with all community, private, and public sector partners, such as Texas A&M University,” FBI Houston Special Agent in Charge James Smith said in a tweet Friday.
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