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Jury finds Harvard professor Charles Lieber guilty of hiding ties to China

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The former chair of Harvard's chemistry department has been convicted of lying to the university and the IRS about his ties with China. Academics across the country have been following the case closely. From member station GBH in Boston, Kirk Carapezza reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do you recognize the contract?

CHARLES LIEBER: Yeah, I - well, I guess...

KIRK CARAPEZZA, BYLINE: During the one-week trial, jurors saw video clips of Charles Lieber admitting he wasn't completely transparent with federal investigators after his arrest in 2020.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIEBER: I can't even believe I did this.

CARAPEZZA: In one clip, Lieber fidgets, throws his arms up and then describes evidence showing he accepted cash payments for participating in a Chinese recruitment program without paying taxes on that income as, quote, "damning."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Did you declare it?

LIEBER: No. If I brought it back, I didn't declare it. And that's illegal.

CARAPEZZA: In court, his defense attorneys argued Lieber did not knowingly lie to the government, saying prosecutors simply didn't have proof. But the jury disagreed, ruling that Lieber made false statements to federal investigators about his participation in the Chinese program, taking hundreds of thousands of dollars and failing to report it to Harvard and the IRS. The former chair of Harvard's chemistry department, Lieber is one of the world's top chemists. And his case has generated much attention because the government has been targeting academics who take foreign funding, specifically from China. And Lieber didn't have obvious ties to that country.

TERRY HARTLE: This is quite outside the norm for what we've come to expect.

CARAPEZZA: That's Terry Hartle with the American Council on Education. He says officials are worried about China luring American professors with cash.

HARTLE: There is bipartisan, bicameral concern that the Chinese government is actively attempting to steal or get access to scientific research and technical research that the United States is producing.

CARAPEZZA: Since his arrest, Lieber has been on paid leave from Harvard. The university declined NPR's request for comment.

For NPR News, I'm Kirk Carapezza in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.