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Harvard Dodges Fees for Criminal Probe of Professor’s China Ties

Jan. 11, 2022, 4:10 PM

A Harvard University professor convicted of lying to federal officials about his business dealings with China’s Wuhan University of Technology lost his bid to force the school to pay his attorneys’ fees and defense costs, Massachusetts’ top court said.

Charles Lieber chaired Harvard’s chemistry and chemical biology department and was principal investigator of a research group funded primarily through grants from the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health.

According to correspondence found on Lieber’s Harvard email account, he entered into three contracts with WUT, one relating to his participation in a program designed by the Chinese government to attract foreign scientific talent called the “Thousand Talents Plan.” He failed to disclose these contracts and affiliations to Harvard in annual outside financial activity reports and periodic financial conflict of interest disclosure forms.

In December a federal jury found Lieber guilty on charges of making false statements to federal investigators about his work for China, filing false tax returns, and failing to report a Chinese bank account.

Lieber sued Harvard seeking advance payment of his legal fees and expenses under the school’s indemnification policy. A judge rightly concluded that Lieber is unlikely to succeed and denied his motion for a preliminary injunction to compel Harvard to pay, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts said Monday.

Harvard argued that advance indemnification was likely to be precluded for Lieber under a number of exceptions set forth in the policy, including cases where the individual failed to act in good faith, engaged in criminal activity, or violated Harvard policies. The school concluded it was reasonably likely that Lieber had lied or consciously withheld information from both the school and the government, and failed to make required disclosures in his financial and conflict of interest reports, in violation of school policy.

The school has a great deal of discretion under Massachusetts law and its own policy on whether to grant advance indemnification, and its conclusion regarding Lieber “was made consistent with the plain meaning of the policy,” Chief Justice Kimberly S. Budd said.

The case is Lieber v. President & Fellows of Harvard Coll., Mass., No. SJC-13141, 1/10/22.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Flood in Washington at bflood@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Patrick L. Gregory at pgregory@bloomberglaw.com