The FBI and the Texas A&M system announce a former professor at the flagship campus has entered a plea agreement to federal charges.
The plea agreement between Zhengdong Cheng and federal prosecutors includes no additional jail time after spending 13 months following his arrest.
Cheng will pay a $20,000 dollar fine and reimburse NASA $86,876 dollars.
According to an A&M system news release, “Authorities had accused Cheng, who conducted research for NASA while at Texas A&M, of hiding his connections to a so-called talent program of the Chinese government that sought to take research from American institutions and use it to advance military and other programs in China.”
News release from the Texas A&M system:
A criminal investigation conducted by the FBI – with help from The Texas A&M University System – led to a former professor’s guilty plea Thursday in connection to charges related to lying about his connections to China.
A federal judge in Houston accepted a guilty plea from Zhengdong Cheng, a chemical engineering professor at Texas A&M University, on two separate counts. The plea deal followed Cheng’s arrest in 2020 on charges of conspiracy, making false statements and wire fraud.
Authorities had accused Cheng, who conducted research for NASA while at Texas A&M, of hiding his connections to a so-called talent program of the Chinese government that sought to take research from American institutions and use it to advance military and other programs in China.
As part of the plea agreement, Cheng agreed to pay $86,876 in restitution to NASA; he will also pay a fine of $20,000, according to court documents. Cheng and prosecutors further agreed that the 13 months Cheng spent in jail is “an appropriate sentence in the matter,” according to court documents.
“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,” said John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M System. “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.”
The investigation into Cheng involved the officials with the Texas A&M System’s Research Security Office working closely with the FBI and other federal partners.
Following the investigation, Cheng was arrested in 2020, and Texas A&M terminated his employment that same year.
In a tweet Friday, FBI Houston Special Agent in Charge James Smith mentioned that the FBI’s work with Texas A&M.
He said: “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. Dr. Cheng’s conviction in this case demonstrates both the critical importance of the cutting-edge technology developed at Texas A&M University and the university’s partnership with the FBI Bryan Resident Agency and NASA Office of Inspector General to protect it.”
Smith’s words echoed those of FBI Director Christopher Wray in 2019 when he testified in a Senate Judiciary hearing. At the time, the director called out Texas A&M as an example of an institution of higher education that understands modern day threats. Wray said the FBI has done “some very good work with Texas A&M recently, to try to raise awareness in the university space.”
Cheng’s time at Texas A&M began in May 2004. At that time, Texas A&M University hired him as a faculty member in the Department of Chemical Engineering. Later, he conducted research for NASA as part of a 2013 grant titled “Research Opportunities in Complex Fluids and Macromolecular Biophysics, Liquid Crystals of Nanoplates.”
Texas A&M has – and had at the time of Cheng’s employment – a requirement to disclose conflicts of interest. The university also requires faculty members to submit financial disclosure statements that would outline other sources of income and employment.
Cheng also was compelled to comply with NASA’s regulations, including one in which NASA specifically prohibits researchers who receive grants to collaborate with China.
However, the investigation showed that Cheng was not forthcoming with NASA and the university, according to court documents.
While Cheng repeatedly certified to NASA that he was in compliance with the space administration’s policies, it turned out that he “intentionally submitted materially false and misleading information” about his connections and intended collaboration with China, according to the plea agreement released Thursday.
Cheng also submitted “false or misleading affirmations” to and through Texas A&M in the preparation of the grant application to NASA.
The court document summed up Cheng’s actions by saying that he “concealed his affiliation and employment with multiple Chinese corporations, including Chinese universities.”
The Texas A&M System has one of the most effective programs in place to thwart the theft of intellectual property. The Research Security Office, which is headed by Dr. Kevin Gamache, actively reviews contracts, connections and affiliations that faculty and researchers might have with foreign governments, particularly those in China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.
Under Gamache, the Texas A&M System’s security program has amassed a record of seven straight “superior” ratings during annual Security Vulnerability Assessments conducted by the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA). DCSA also recognized the System in 2015 and 2020 with the Colonel James S. Cogswell Outstanding Industrial Security Achievement Award as one of 40 from more than 12,000 defense contractors. DCSA also recognized the System with their 2017 and 2019 Awards for Excellence in Counterintelligence, given to contractors and universities that best demonstrate the ability to stop foreign theft of US defense and national security technology.
This week, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine praised the Texas A&M System as Gamache testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“Unfortunately, not every academic institution is as advanced as Texas A&M in having well-though out policies and reporting requirements governing those potential vulnerabilities,” the senator said.