Former Texas A&M professor pleads guilty to hiding connections with China

A former Texas A&M University professor pled guilty this week in connection to charges related to lying about his connections to China.

Zhengdong Cheng, a chemical engineering professor, pled guilty on two separate counts. The plea deal followed his arrest in 2020 on charges of conspiracy, making false statements and wire fraud, says Texas A&M.

Authorities accused Cheng, who conducted research for NASA while at Texas A&M, of hiding his connections to a Chinese government program that sought to take research from American institutions and use it to advance military and other programs in China, says the university.

As part of the plea agreement, Cheng agreed to pay $86,876 in restitution to NASA. He will also pay a fine of $20,000, according to court documents. Cheng and prosecutors further agreed that the 13 months Cheng spent in jail is "an appropriate sentence in the matter," according to court documents.

The investigation into Cheng involved the officials with the Texas A&M System’s Research Security Office working closely with the FBI and other federal partners. Texas A&M says it terminated his employment the same year he was arrested.

Cheng’s time at Texas A&M began in May 2004 when the university hired him as a faculty member in the Department of Chemical Engineering. Later, he conducted research for NASA as part of a 2013 grant titled "Research Opportunities in Complex Fluids and Macromolecular Biophysics, Liquid Crystals of Nanoplates," according to the university.

Texas A&M says it has – and had at the time of Cheng’s employment – a requirement to disclose conflicts of interest. The university also requires faculty members to submit financial disclosure statements that would outline other sources of income and employment.

Cheng also was compelled to comply with NASA’s regulations, including one in which NASA specifically prohibits researchers who receive grants to collaborate with China. However, the investigation showed that Cheng was not forthcoming with NASA and the university, according to court documents.

While Cheng repeatedly certified to NASA that he was in compliance with the space administration’s policies, it turned out that he "intentionally submitted materially false and misleading information" about his connections and intended collaboration with China, according to the plea agreement released Thursday. Cheng also submitted "false or misleading affirmations" to and through Texas A&M in the preparation of the grant application to NASA, says the university.