MIT professor loses bid to sanction former U.S. Attorney Lelling

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REUTERS/Brian Snyder

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  • Lawyers for Gang Chen accused Andrew Lelling of making inflammatory statements
  • Judge said Lelling's statements "not well advised" but did not warrant a reprimand

(Reuters) - A federal magistrate judge in Boston on Tuesday concluded that former U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling made "inappropriate" pre-trial comments to the media about a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor accused of grant fraud but held Lelling's conduct did not warrant sanctions.

Lawyers for MIT professor Gang Chen sought to have Lelling, now a partner at Jones Day, publicly reprimanded and the U.S. Attorney's Office sanctioned for what they said were false, inflammatory statements that could impede their client's right to a fair trial.

Those statements were made during a January press conference and in a press release when prosecutors charged Chen, a nanotechnology research specialist, with failing to disclose his ties to the Chinese government when seeking federal grant money.

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Among the statements cited by Chen's lawyers, Brian Kelly and Robert Fisher of Nixon Peabody, was an answer Lelling gave to a question during a press conference about the case.

Lelling stated that "the allegations of the complaint imply that this was not just about greed, but about loyalty to China." Chen's lawyers objected, saying the statement implied disloyalty to the United States.

In a 14-page ruling, U.S. Magistrate Judge Donald Cabell said given that Chen was not charged with engaging in espionage or anti-American activities, any statement to the press regarding Chen's motive "ideally should have made that point clear."

"To the extent the statement here did not do so and may have led to any unflattering speculation as to the defendant’s mindset, the statement was inappropriate," Cabell said.

But he said that while Lelling's statement "was not well advised," it was a "relatively tame answer to a reporter's question" that did not unfairly call into question Chen's character or appear to resonate more broadly in the media.

Chen's lawyers had objected to other statements, but Cabell concluded none were sanctionable.

Lelling, a prominent figure in Massachusetts political circles following his stint in the Trump administration, welcomed the ruling in a statement and said it was not his intent to question Chen's loyalty to the United States.

"Like every defendant, he deserves to have his case decided solely on the basis of admissible evidence relevant to the charges against him," Lelling said.

Kelly, Chen's lawyer, in a statement said: "We're glad the court ruled that the 'loyalty to China' remarks were inappropriate even if it declined to impose sanctions."

A spokesperson U.S. Attorney's Office, now headed by Acting U.S. Attorney Nathaniel Mendell, declined to comment.

The case is one of several to result from a U.S. Justice Department crackdown on Chinese influence within universities amid concerns about spying and intellectual property theft by the Chinese government.

Prosecutors said Chen was involved in various efforts to promote China's technological and scientific development, including acting as an "overseas expert" for the Chinese government at the request of its New York consulate.

Prosecutors said he received money from various Chinese entities and helped review and assess grant applications for the National Natural Science Foundation of China, which operates similarly to U.S. grant-funding agencies.

But prosecutors said he never disclosed his work for the NNSFC or other Chinese affiliations when he applied for Energy Department grants.

The case is United States v. Chen, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts, No. 21-cr-10018.

For the United States: Stephanie Siegmann, Jason Casey and Timothy Kistner of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts

For Chen: Brian Kelly and Robert Fisher of Nixon Peabody

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at