US Federal prosecutors on Friday sought to dismiss charges against a Temple University physics professor who was accused of scheming to provide secret US technology to China after being confronted with statements from physicists that investigators had misunderstood the technology.
The US attorney’s office in Philadelphia declined to comment on the four-page motion the office filed seeking to drop four counts of wire fraud against the professor, Xi Xiaoxing (郗小星).
In its filing in a federal court in Philadelphia, the government said that the motion is based on “additional information” it received since the charges against the 57-year-old professor were filed in May.
Xi, a naturalized US citizen born in China, was chairman of Temple’s physics department until his arrest. He voluntarily stepped down as chairman and remains a faculty member.
The dismissal motion comes after Xi and his lawyer, Peter Zeidenberg, gave a presentation on Aug. 21 to investigators.
That presentation included affidavits from world-renowned physicists and experts who looked at the e-mails between Xi and contacts in China, and explained that he was involved in a scientific pursuit that had a very narrow commercial application and did not involve restricted technology, Zeidenberg said.
“We are very relieved that the charges against my father were dropped,” Xi’s daughter, Joyce Xi, said by telephone from the family’s home in the Philadelphia suburbs. “It has been a very difficult time for our family and we are looking forward to regaining some normalcy in our lives.”
The motion must still be approved by US District Judge R. Barclay Surrick.
Federal prosecutors want the opportunity to confer with their own outside experts and have reserved the right to bring charges again, Zeidenberg said.
“We have no reason to think that that is going to happen,” he said.
Asked how the government made such a mistake, Zeidenberg said he did not know.
Prosecutors thought he was sending information related to a magnesium diboride pocket heater for which he had signed a nondisclosure agreement, Zeidenberg said.
When they arrested Xi in May, prosecutors said he had participated in a Chinese government program involving technology innovation before he took a sabbatical in 2002 to work with a US company that developed a thin-film superconducting device containing magnesium diboride.
Superconductivity is the ability to conduct electricity without resistance. A superconducting thin film could be key to making computer circuits that work faster. Films of magnesium diboride are particularly promising for this use, and Xi helped develop a way to make them.
Prosecutors said he “exploited it for the benefit of third parties in China, including government entities,” by sharing it with the help of his post-doctoral students from China. Xi also offered to build a world-class thin-film laboratory there, according to e-mails detailed by prosecutors in May.
However, Xi was sending information about a different device, which he helped invent. It was not restricted technology or supposed to be kept secret by a nondisclosure agreement, Zeidenberg said.
“It was typical academic collaboration,” Zeidenberg said. “Nobody is getting rich off this stuff.”
In any case, the pocket heater is patented and plans on how to make it can be looked up online, Zeidenberg said.
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