Harvard Doesn't Have to Pay Legal Fees for Professor Convicted of Hiding Ties to China

A Massachusetts court ruled Monday that Harvard University does not have to pay legal defense fees for one of its former professors after he faced legal repercussions for alleged ties to a Chinese recruitment program.

Charles Lieber, the 62-year-old ex-chair of Harvard's department of chemistry and chemical biology, was found guilty last month of making false statements, filing false tax returns and not filing reports for his Chinese bank account.

Lieber was accused of hiding his participation in China's Thousand Talents Plan, which recruits people from foreign countries who are able to share secrets about their country's technologies and intellectual properties.

Prosecutors said Wuhan University of Technology paid Lieber $50,000 a month to help with things like applying for patents and organizing conferences, as well as another $1.5 million in grants, which Lieber hid from U.S. authorities.

In October 2020, Lieber sued Harvard for denying his request for legal defense funds, as the university has a policy that offers these kinds of funds to select employees for legal issues faced during the course of their work for the university.

However, the Massachusetts court sided with Harvard when it said many of the allegations were not within the scope of his job at the university. When Lieber appealed the decision to the highest court in the state, the court decided Monday to uphold the earlier decision.

Charles Lieber, professor, Boston
Harvard University professor Charles Lieber was found guilty of involvement in a Chinese recruitment program. Above, Lieber departs federal court in Boston on January 30, 2020. Charles Krupa, File/AP Photo

In its decision, the Supreme Judicial Court found that Harvard was acting within its "broad statutory authority" when it refused to provide upfront payment to cover defense costs for Lieber.

In Lieber's case, Harvard concluded that some of the allegations fell outside the scope of his job. An official also found that Lieber had probably lied about his ties to China, which violated Harvard policies, according to the Supreme Judicial Court decision.

After a Superior Court judge sided with Harvard and denied Lieber's request for immediate payment, Lieber appealed to the state's highest court. But Monday's decision supported the earlier ruling and concluded that Harvard was within its rights to reject Lieber's request.

The court cited a Massachusetts law that says nonprofit organizations are "authorized, but not required" to cover legal defense fees for workers.

"Harvard has taken that authority and adopted an indemnification policy that affords it a fair amount of discretion when it comes to making certain determinations," the court found.

It added Lieber "failed altogether to establish that it violates public policy."

Harvard and a lawyer for Lieber did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jonathan Toebbe and Diana Toebbe.
Lieber's trial is the latest bellwether in the U.S. Justice Department's controversial effort to crackdown on economic espionage by China. Above, Jonathan Toebbe and Diana Toebbe have been charged with espionage-related offenses including selling nuclear secrets to a foreign power in late 2021, the Department of Justice said. Instagram