After a long legal battle, a Chinese-American hydrologist who was wrongly accused of espionage is finally getting justice.
Chief Administrative Judge Michele Schroeder ruled Tuesday in favor of Sherry Chen, whom the National Weather Service had fired in 2015 even after the espionage case against Chen had collapsed. Schroeder ordered the federal agency to reinstate the hydrologist and give her back pay.
“My findings indicate that Ms. Chen is an expert in her field of hydrology,” read the decision, which HuffPost obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request. “There is no reason why she cannot continue to be a productive employee and continue to contribute to NWS’s mission.”
The victory has been a long time coming for the hydrologist, who challenged her termination through the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, an independent agency that protects public employees.
FBI agents arrested Chen in 2014, accusing her of using a stolen password to obtain information about U.S. dams. She was also accused of lying about a meeting with a Chinese official. Yet just a week before Chen was to go to trial, the case fell apart and charges were dropped with little explanation.
“We are exercising our prosecutorial discretion,” Jennifer Thornton, the spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, told press at the time.
Chen’s troubles didn’t end there, however. Months after the case fell apart, Chen received a termination letter citing “conduct demonstrating untrustworthiness” and “misrepresentation” among the reasons she was being fired.
However, Schroeder wrote that officials from the U.S. Department of Commerce, which the National Weather Service is part of, were intent on firing Chen regardless of what facts arose. They were “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 judge wrote.
Officials failed to consider a dozen sworn declarations from Chen’s co-workers in their termination decision, Schroder added. Ultimately, the National Weather Service failed to prove the “vast majority” of Chen’s alleged conduct, she said, and the Commerce Department didn’t have cause to terminate Chen.
“It’s clear that Sherry Chen was the victim of gross injustice and unwarranted racial profiling during her time at the [Commerce] Department.”
The judge swapped Chen’s termination for a 15-day suspension without pay, due to what Schroeder called a “singular lapse of judgment on Ms. Chen’s part.” This referred to Chen’s agreement to “provide data to a former member of the weather service with a written assurance not to tell anyone she was doing so.”
Several Asian-American legislators applauded the decision and are now calling for an investigation into the handling of Chen’s case.
“Unfortunately, there have been multiple cases in which Chinese American scientists like Sherry have been wrongfully targeted and arrested for alleged espionage only to have those charges dropped with no explanation,” Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “That is why [Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus] has made it a top priority to urge the Department of Justice to examine whether there is a pattern or practice of Asian Americans being singled out by federal law enforcement and prosecutors for espionage.”
Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) issued similar statements.
“It’s clear that Sherry Chen was the victim of gross injustice and unwarranted racial profiling during her time at the Department,” Lieu said. “I’m calling on the IG to immediately open an investigation into this wrongdoing so that it does not happen to our fellow Americans again.”
As the legislators pointed out, Chen is among a string of scientists and researchers of Asian descent who have been wrongly accused of espionage, including Chinese-American professor Xiaoxing Xi, Eli Lilly scientists Guoqing Cao and Shuyu Li, and NASA contract worker Bo Jiang. While their cases dissolved, the damage had already been done.
“Dropped charges do not erase the trauma and paranoia from FBI surveillance, $200,000 in legal fees, or the many shattered pieces of our lives we still have to put together,” Xi’s daughter Joyce wrote in a blog for HuffPost. “It does not erase the fact that the federal government exerted its overwhelming power to try and criminalize my father in the name of national security, as if he were an enemy of his own country, America.”
Research shows that Americans of Asian descent are disproportionately profiled in espionage cases. The nonpartisan Chinese-American organization Committee of 100 published a white paper last June that revealed Asians were more likely to be charged with economic espionage than people of any other race. They are also found innocent at a rate two times higher than individuals from any other racial group. However, people with Asian-sounding names received sentences twice as long as those with Western-sounding names.