Zaosong Zheng, a former researcher at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday to lying to customs officials following charges he tried to smuggle cancer research to China.
Zheng, a 31-year-old who arrived in the United States from China in 2018, was arrested Dec. 10, 2019 at Boston Logan International Airport. Customs officials found 21 vials of biological material in a sock packed in his suitcase which allegedly came from a lab at Beth Israel, where he worked.
Zheng agreed in the plea to leave the country following his Jan. 6, 2021 sentencing hearing, though a judge will ultimately decide whether Zheng should face further penalties. The false statements charge comes with a potential of up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
As part of the plea deal on the false statements charge, prosecutors agreed to drop the charge of smuggling goods out of the country.
Customs officers had flagged Zheng as high-risk for smuggling biological material; when they were searching his luggage, he repeatedly denied carrying research materials, according to an affidavit. He later said the vials “had nothing to do with his research,” then said a friend gave him the vials. He eventually confessed to stealing them from his lab and said he planned to take the materials to his own laboratory in China and publish a paper in his name.
Norman Zalkind, one of Zheng’s attorneys, said Thursday he was glad the two sides were able to reach a joint recommendation for the judge.
“We’re never happy with any kind of a guilty finding, but we’re happy that the government and us came to a resolution we both agreed on and both felt was fair,” he said.
Beth Israel fired Zheng following his arrest. In an emailed statement Thursday, hospital spokesperson Teresa M. Herbert wrote that “any efforts to compromise research undermine the hard work of our faculty and staff to advance patient care.”
“We are grateful for the diligence and professionalism of federal law enforcement in this case,” she added.
Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton and Harvard Medical School spokesperson Laura DeCoste declined to comment.
Zheng’s arrest formed part of a recent crackdown on intellectual property theft and was followed by authorities arresting then-Harvard Chemistry chair Charles M. Lieber on allegations that he lied to federal authorities about his research affiliations in China. Lieber has pleaded not guilty and vowed to fight the charges, which include making false statements and tax offenses, at trial.
—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.