Sherry Chen, Falsely Accused, Wins Case but still has not been Restored to Her Job

Sherry Chen, Falsely Accused, Wins Case but still has not been Restored to Her Job

Image courtesy of NBC News.

Back in 2015, I had watched on 60 Minutes and also read with dismay Chinese American Sherry Chen’s story:

“On Monday, Oct. 20, 2014, Sherry Chen drove, as usual, to her office at the National Weather Service in Wilmington, Ohio, where she forecast flood threats along the Ohio River. She was a bit jet-lagged, having returned a few days earlier from a visit to China. But as she headed to her desk, she says, she had no reason to think it was anything other than an ordinary day. Then her boss summoned her.

Once inside his office, a back door opened and in walked six agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The agents accused Mrs. Chen, a hydrologist born in China and now a naturalized American citizen, of using a stolen password to download information about the nation’s dams and of lying about meeting with a high-ranking Chinese official.

Mrs. Chen, 59, an adoptive Midwesterner who had received awards for her government service, was now suspected of being a Chinese spy. She was arrested and led in handcuffs past her co-workers to a federal courthouse 40 miles away in Dayton, where she was told she faced 25 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

“Why,” Mr. Zeidenberg said he asked, “if she’s a spy, is she coming back from China and telling her colleagues that ‘I met this guy in China and this is what he wants to know’? Why is she telling the guy in China, ‘Here’s my boss’s phone number’? Why is she asking for a password over email? Why would you do that?”

Mr. Zeidenberg says the prosecutors listened. On March 10, the day after their meeting, they dismissed the charges.”

I actually got to meet Chen in Palo Alto where she was a guest for a talk on “A Seminar on Trade Secrets and Economic Espionage: Legal Risks in Advancing Technology between the U.S. and China.” Although I’m an American-born Taiwanese American, I have worked for two Chinese companies, so I am acutely aware of the possible discrimination against Asian Americans. In fact, I remember finding out that one of my Mom’s church friend’s siblings was Taiwanese American scientist and falsely accused spy Wen Ho Lee.

So it was with great pleasure that I had read about Chen getting back her old job that she had cherished so much:

“Yet the National Weather Service terminated her from employment doing the job she loved at its offices near Cincinnati, Ohio.

Determined to stand up and speak out, Sherry challenged the termination decision through the Merit Systems Protection Board, an administrative system meant to protect hard-working public employees such as her. On April 23, the decision was issued that ordered she be returned to her work on behalf of the public and be given backpay.

In the 118-page opinion, the judge also found:

Ms. Chen asserts that she is the “victim of a gross injustice.” After reviewing the evidence and testimony in this matter I believe Ms. Chen’s assertion is correct . . . It was, however, extremely evident by their demeanor, that both [decision-makers] were simply digging their heels in when it came time to support the decision they had made. . . . In short, [they] seemed more concerned about being right than doing the right thing. Based on the unyielding nature of their testimony, I would not have been surprised if they rejected that 2 + 2 = 4.”

The Commerce Department has planned to appeal the ruling, so she still does not have her job back.  Several Asian American organizations released this joint communique condemning the appeal.

There are legitimate cases to prosecute when it comes to Asian Americans and espionage for national or commercial means, but with the increasingly mostly economic rivalries between the United States and China, the U.S. must ensure that the proper due diligence is applied before more innocent Americans are wrongfully charged and terminated.

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