A wrongfully terminated Chinese American scientist was just awarded nearly $2 million in damages

Chen’s case mobilized a grassroots advocacy network of concerned Chinese-American citizens, who publicized her experience, lobbied members of Congress on her behalf, and raised money for her legal defense. One of these groups would later become APA Justice, one of the most vocal and consistent voices against the China Initiative and racial profiling.

When it was reported in 2019 that Chinese-American academics were being investigated again and fired on suspicion of espionage, the networks originally created to support Chen were reactivated.

To many observers, the parallels were clear. “With the China Initiative, we’ve seen several failed and weak processes. Ms. Chen is certainly not alone in this,” Ashley Gorski, a senior staff attorney at the National Security Project at MIT, told MIT Technology Review. the ACLU, which helped represent Chen.

Chen was arrested in 2014 and charged with espionage by the FBI, which alleged that she illegally accessed a government database to share sensitive information about American prisoners with Chinese scientists. Further investigation revealed that what Chen had actually done was to use a shared password, widely known in his office, to access a database for his work. A lack of evidence led the Justice Department to drop its charges five months after filing them. Still, Chen was fired from his job, for the same now-discredited reasons that prompted the FBI charges.

The flawed information comes from the Commerce Department’s Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS), a domestic security unit that a July 2021 Senate inquiry found had engaged in broad patterns of discriminatory investigations unfounded allegations against Chinese-American and other employees, and which named Chen’s case as an example of misconduct. ITMS disbanded shortly after the report was published.

Meanwhile, Chen filed a wrongful termination complaint with the Merit Systems Protection Board, a quasi-judicial body that oversees employment cases involving federal employees, and won. But the Commerce Department, which oversees the National Weather Service, appealed. Staff shortages at the MSPB left the appeal in limbo for years, so in 2019, Chen filed a civil suit against the US government for malicious prosecution and false arrest. His legal team asked for $5 million in damages.

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