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 Thursday in Houston federal court.
Cheng's conviction was part of a program called the China Initiative, which was first started under the Trump administration. But in February, the Justice Department abandoned the program after complaints it chilled academic collaboration and contributed to anti-Asian bias. The department had also endured high-profile setbacks in individual prosecutions, resulting in the dismissal of multiple criminal cases against academic researchers in the last year. The Justice Department said it planned to impose a higher bar for such prosecutions.
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.
Philip Hilder, Cheng's attorney, said the professor was "relieved that this unfortunate chapter of his life is behind."
"The China Initiative ... has now been phased out as a Justice Department priority. The overall mission stays the same, to ferret out economic espionage, but the focus is to target wrongdoers by their deeds and not by their ethnicity," Hilder said.
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.
Cheng was fired from Texas A&M shortly after his arrest.
In a tweet Friday, FBI Houston Special Agent in Charge James Smith said his agency "prioritizes investigating threats to academia as part of our commitment to preventing intellectual property theft at U.S. research institutions and companies."