HOUSTON — A NASA researcher and Texas A&M University professor has pleaded guilty to charges he concealed his ties to a Chinese government-founded university while accepting federal grant money.

Zheng Dongcheng pleaded guilty to two counts — violating NASA regulations and falsifying government documents — during a hearing in federal court in Houston on Thursday.


Cheng was originally charged with wire fraud, conspiracy and making false statements when he was arrested in August 2020. But he pleaded guilty to the new charges as part of a deal with federal prosecutors.

U.S. District Judge Andrew Hannon sentenced Cheng to time he had already served during the trial — about 13 months.


Cheng also agreed to pay $86,876 in restitution and a $20,000 fine.

A lawyer for Cheng did not immediately return a call or email seeking comment Friday.


Prosecutors accused Cheng, who was hired by Texas A&M in 2004, of covering up his work in China, even as his team of researchers received nearly $750,000 in grant money for space research. NASA is prohibited from using funds for any cooperation or coordination with China, Chinese entities or any Chinese-owned company.

But, prosecutors say, Cheng violated those sanctions by maintaining a number of undisclosed ties to China, including serving as director of the Soft Matter Institute at a technology university in Guangdong, China. , which was established by the Ministry of Education of China.


“Texas A&M and the Texas A&M System take security very seriously, and we are constantly looking for threats, especially when national security is involved,” Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp said in a statement Friday. said “We will continue to work with our federal partners to keep our intellectual property safe and out of the hands of foreign governments that seek to harm us.”

Cheng was fired from Texas A&M shortly after his arrest. Texas A&M is located approximately 90 miles (145 km) northwest of Houston.

The case against Cheng is part of a pattern of Justice Department prosecutions of researchers at American universities accused of concealing their professional relationships with Chinese institutions.

“The FBI prioritizes investigating threats to academic institutions as part of our commitment to preventing the theft of intellectual property at American research institutions and companies,” said FBI Houston Special Agent in Charge James Smith. Together, we protect the integrity of federally funded research and prevent billions of dollars in damage to the U.S. economy by working with all community, private and public sector partners like Texas A&M University.

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