NASA Researcher Pleads Guilty in China Ties Case

A NASA researcher and professor at Texas A&M University pled guilty to charges linked to concealing his affiliations with a Chinese government-founded university while receiving federal grants.

During a hearing in federal court in Houston on Thursday, Zhengdong Cheng entered a plea of guilty to two counts: violating NASA regulations and forging official papers.

When Cheng was first detained in August 2020, he had been accused of wire fraud, conspiracy, and making false statements. But as part of a deal with federal prosecutors, he admitted guilt to the new accusations.

Cheng was given a sentence by U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen that was equivalent to the roughly 13 months he had previously served in jail prior to trial.

Cheng also consented to pay a fine of $20,000 and $86,876 in restitution.

Cheng’s lawyer did not promptly respond to a call or email for comment on Friday.

Cheng, who was hired by Texas A&M in 2004, was accused by the prosecution of hiding his work while still receiving nearly $750,000 in grant funding for his team of academics’ space study. Funding from NASA cannot be used for any coordination or collaboration with Chinese institutions, organizations, or businesses that are wholly owned by Chinese people.

However, according to the prosecution, Cheng breached these limitations by keeping a number of covert connections to China, including holding the position of director of a soft matter institute at a technical university founded by the Chinese Ministry of Education in Guangdong.

After his arrest, Cheng was let go from Texas A&M. About 90 miles (145 kilometers) northwest of Houston is where Texas A&M is situated.

The Justice Department has a history of prosecuting scholars at American colleges who are accused of hiding their business ties to Chinese institutions, and Cheng’s case is no different.

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