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Sherry Chen (hydrologist)

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Xiafen "Sherry" Chen, 59, was a hydrologist at the National Weather Service (NWS), a federal government institution in Ohio. She was falsely accused of spying and arrested in October 2014. She was originally charged with four felonies, including that she had illegally downloaded data about national infrastructure and made false statement of telling federal agents that she last seen a Chinese official in 2011, not 2012. Five months later (in March 2015), prosecutors dropped all charges against Mrs. Chen without explanation.

Even though without any wrongdoing, Chen has been in debt for over 200 thousand dollars due to legal fees.

Case Background

Chen worked on the modeling and forecasting of flood threats along the Ohio River at National Weather Service. NWS mission statement states that “NWS data and products form a national information database and infrastructure which can be used by other governmental agencies, the private sector, the public, and the global community.” Part of Chen's job responsibilities were to answer public inquires about daily weather forecasts and river forecasts.

Chen's case was triggered by her trip to Beijing to visit her elderly parents in 2012. One of her relatives had a dispute with local government about a water pipeline and approached Chen for help since Mr. Jiao Yong at China’s Ministry of Water Resources is Chen's former classmate in hydrology. Chen had not seen Mr. Jiao for many years and was reluctant to get involved first. But she was pushed into it due to family obligation. Chen was able to get a 15-minute meeting with Mr. Jiao and told him about her relative’s complaint. Towards the end of the meeting, Mr. Jiao said his office was trying to fund the repairs of China’s aging reservoir system, and was curious how this may work in the U.S. As a favor to a former classmate and also for a fellow professional in the same field, Chen agreed to help.

Once returned to USA, Chen sent Mr. Jiao some public websites and also asked around at work to see if any of her co-workers could help. Her boss introduced her to talk to a colleague at Water Management Division of the US Army Corps of Engineers (ACE). The colleague said Mr. Jiao could talk to her directly. Chen then emailed Mr. Jiao to contact the colleague directly, without following up further. Later, the colleague reported Chen to the government security agency, suggesting that Chen may be a Chinese spy and may be stealing government information. Since then, Chen had unwittingly become a Chinese spy suspect by the US government.

In June 2013, Chen was interviewed in her office by two security agents from the Department of Commerce. It was a 7-hour marathon interrogation with no food, water, or break. The two agents told Chen that she could not tell this interview to anyone, and that she didn’t need a lawyer. Chen tried to collaborate and told the agents everything she knew. The agents failed to find any “spying” evidence. But they still claimed Chen was “lying” to federal investigators because Chen couldn’t quite recall some of the dates or events.

On October 20, 2014. Six FBI agents took her away in handcuffs in front of her colleagues. The Department of Justice (DOJ) issued an indictment with a punishment of 25 years in jail and $1M in fines. The original charges included accusing Chen of stealing data, intentionally exceeded authorized access to a database and two false statements, meaning that she lied to investigators.

Chen's lawyer, Peter R. Zeidenberg, a partner at Arent Fox in Washington, defended her case. He found fatal flaws in the case and filed three motions pointing out these flaws and request DOJ to have the case dismissed. The prosecutor went back to grand jury to fix the problems and came back with eight charges and added another prosecutor on his team. After extensive interviews of witness including almost of Chen's coworkers, search of the history of Chen's bank account statements over twenty years since she came to the US, personal and official email accounts, computer activities, the government decided to drop all the charges against Chen in March 2015.


Sherry Chen (hydrologist) Wikipedia

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