Trial starts for professor accused of hiding ties with China


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A University of Tennessee professor charged with hiding his relationship with a Chinese university while receiving research grants from the federal government is innocent of the federal charges, his attorney said during a trial in Knoxville.

Anming Hu’s defense attorney, Philip Lomonaco, said Monday that the professor was targeted in an effort to satisfy the U.S. Justice Department’s crackdown against university researchers accused of concealing their ties to Chinese institutions and to scare off American universities from employing foreign-born researchers and professors, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported.

But federal prosecutor Matthew J. McKenzie said the case was about Hu’s concealment and lies about working for a Beijing university while he also was employed at the University of Tennessee’s flagship campus in Knoxville, the newspaper reported.

Both attorneys made opening statements in Hu’s jury trial, which began Monday. An associate professor in the department of mechanical, aerospace and biomedical engineering at UT, Hu was charged in February 2020 with wire fraud and making false statements.

After the indictment was announced, the university said Hu had been suspended and school officials had cooperated with authorities.

The charges are part of a broader Justice Department crackdown against university researchers who conceal their ties to Chinese institutions. The so-called “China Initiative” was launched in 2018 by President Donald Trump’s administration to identify priority trade secret cases and focus resources on them.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor was charged in January with hiding work he did for the Chinese government while he was also collecting U.S. dollars for his nanotechnology research.

Federal officials have asserted that Beijing is intent on stealing intellectual property from America’s colleges and universities, and have actively been warning schools to be on alert against espionage attempts. Hu is not charged with espionage.

Prosecutors say Hu defrauded the National Aeronautics and Space Administration by failing to disclose the fact that he was also a professor at the Beijing University of Technology in China. Under federal law, NASA cannot fund or give grant money to Chinese-owned companies or universities.

According to the indictment, as the University of Tennessee was preparing a proposal on Hu’s behalf for a NASA-funded project, Hu provided false assurances to the school that he was not part of any business collaboration involving China.

In addition, prosecutors say, a curriculum vitae that Hu submitted when he applied for a tenured faculty position with the university omitted any affiliation with the Beijing university.

The indictment said Hu sent emails stating he was a professor at the Beijing school and taught special seminars for graduate students in laser engineering.

NASA wired UT nearly $60,000 in 2016 and 2017 for a project involving the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, the indictment said. NASA would pay another $50,000 in 2019 for a project involving the Marshall Space Flight Center, the indictment said.

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