Thu, Sep 17, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Hydrologist cleared of charges faces the sack

By Nicole Perlroth  /  NY Times News Service, SAN FRANCISCO

US government officials say they intend to fire a Chinese-American hydrologist who was prosecuted, but eventually cleared of espionage-related charges.

The hydrologist, Sherry Chen (陳夏芬), an employee of the US National Weather Service (NWS), received a letter over Labor Day weekend notifying her that the government planned to fire her for many of the same reasons it originally prosecuted her.

Last year, federal agents investigated Chen as a possible Chinese spy. They found no evidence of espionage, but still arrested her on lesser charges that could have led to 25 years in prison and US$1 million in fines. The US Department of Justice ultimately dropped the case.

Since then, she has been on paid administrative leave waiting to learn whether the government will allow her to return to her job at the Weather Service’s office in Wilmington, Ohio.

However, the charges brought against Chen, in addition to separate charges against a Chinese-American professor at Temple University, which were dropped on Friday last week, have renewed concerns that innocent Chinese-Americans are becoming targets for prosecution as the US government tries to counter hacking and espionage threats.

Earlier this year, 22 members of Congress asked US Attorney General Loretta Lynch to determine whether ethnicity was a factor in the espionage charges against Chen, who was born in China, but is a naturalized citizen of the US.

US Representative Ted Lieu, a Democrat, said in an interview on Tuesday that the decision to fire Chen was “outrageous” and a “saving face issue” for the agency.

Lieu said he planned to ask the Justice Department for an independent investigation into whether the initial charges against Chen were warranted, and whether, in light of the charges that were also filed against the Temple professor and then dropped, there is a pattern of Chinese-Americans being arrested and indicted on charges based on their ethnicity and not on evidence.

“Their allegations against her do not rise to the level of a termination,” Lieu said, adding that Chen had no previous disciplinary record and had in fact received top reviews and awards for her government service.

“If she was not a Chinese-American, she would not have been arrested, indicted and would not now be in the process of being fired,” he said.

Federal agents arrested Chen in December last year and accused her of illegally accessing a federal dam database on behalf of foreign interests.

However, the investigation found that Chen had only shared information from publicly available Web sites with a former college classmate, now China’s vice water minister, who asked her how reservoir projects are funded in the US.

To answer his question, Chen searched the National Inventory of Dams’ password-protected Web site with a password provided by a colleague. Chen never found any information relevant to her classmate’s query, but did download information that was relevant to her work forecasting flooding along the Ohio River.

That she had used a colleague’s password to download data from a government Web site became a major component of the government’s espionage case against her, as well as her dismissal.

In her letter, National Weather Service Deputy Director Laura Furgione wrote that she proposed to fire Chen for “conduct demonstrating untrustworthiness,” “misrepresentation,” “misuse of a federal government database” and “lack of candor.”

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