Massachusetts court questions Harvard prof's 'elitist' fee claims

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Charles Lieber leaves federal court. REUTERS/Katherine Taylor

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(Reuters) - Justices on Massachusetts' top court on Wednesday questioned why a Harvard University professor charged with concealing his ties to a Chinese-run recruitment program was entitled to have the Ivy League school cover the costs of his criminal defense.

Members of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court appeared skeptical of Charles Lieber's claim that Harvard was required to advance his legal defense fees, with one justice even calling the professor's arguments "elitist."

Lieber, the former chair of Harvard's chemistry and chemical biology department, sued the school in October 2020 after he was charged in one of the highest-profile cases to emerge from a U.S. Justice Department crackdown on Chinese influence within universities.

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The case centers on the Thousand Talents Program, a Chinese government program U.S. authorities say is used to recruit overseas Chinese citizens and foreign researchers to share their knowledge of technology with China in exchange for perks including research funding.

Prosecutors alleged that in 2018 and 2019, Lieber lied to U.S. authorities about his involvement in the Thousand Talents Plan and affiliation with Wuhan University of Technology in China.

He has pleaded not guilty to making false statements and tax-related charges and is slated to face trial on Dec. 14. Lieber's being defended in that case by Marc Mukasey of Mukasey Frenchman.

Wednesday's appeal came after a lower-court judge declined to issue a preliminary injunction requiring Harvard to cover his fees.

David Suny, a lawyer for Lieber at McCormack Suny, argued that under an indemnification policy that applied to Harvard's professors, the school was required to advance his legal fees for a criminal case arising from his employment.

He called the advancement of legal fees a "critical right" long recognized by the courts. While Harvard's policy contained some exceptions to indemnification, Suny said its terms were at best ambiguous and Harvard was required to cover his fees.

"If you want to make it completely discretionary, you can," Suny said. "But Harvard didn't do that here."

But Justices David Lowy and Scott Kafker both questioned how the policy could ever be considered ambiguous when it stated that Harvard retained the right to not advance fees when the school determined a professor violated its policies.

"What's ambiguous there?" Lowy asked.

Joan Lukey, Harvard's lawyer from Choate, Hall & Stewart, argued it was allowed to not advance Lieber's fees because he lied to the school about his affiliation with Wuhan University.

His lies to Harvard, she said, "nearly got the university in the same trouble that he was in."

Suny also argued that public policy strongly favored advancing the fees of people like Lieber in positions of public import, adding it would help the professor advance his "right to academic freedom."

Justice Serge Georges sharply questioned that argument, saying it appeared to suggest only white collar criminal defendants, not blue collar ones, holding important jobs were entitled to the benefits of Lieber's claimed public policy.

"My take away when I was reading that argument was it sounded really arrogant, really elitist," he said.

The case is Lieber v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, No. SJC-13141.

For Lieber: David Suny of McCormack Suny

For Harvard: Joan Lukey of Choate, Hall & Stewart

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.