Lawmakers Seek IG Probe of Commerce’s Handling of Scientist Accused of Spying

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., is one of the lawmakers requesting the investigation. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., is one of the lawmakers requesting the investigation. Chris Carlson/AP

A month after an administrative judge reinstated her to a job in a Commerce Department lab, weather scientist Sherry Chen—accused in 2014 of spying for China—is still not being allowed to return to work.

On Wednesday, several lawmakers in the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus appeared with Chen on Capitol Hill to announce a letter to Commerce Inspector General Peggy Gustafson seeking a probe of the department’s handling of Chen’s racially tinged case of wrongful dismissal in March 2016.

The letter, signed by 31 House members led by California Democrats Judy Chu and Ted Lieu, said the former hydrologist at the National Weather Service  “was targeted by federal investigators for alleged espionage and arrested based not on any reasonable evidence, but on what appears to be her race.”

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The FBI eventually dropped its charges that she divulged classified weather forecasting techniques to a Chinese contact, and the judge handling Chen’s case for the Merit Systems Protection Board called her “a victim of gross injustice.”

The lawmakers argued that “It does not appear that anyone at the department has been held accountable for the pattern of misconduct in Ms. Chen’s case.” They requested a “full and independent investigation” along with her reinstatement with back pay.

“We remain concerned that her case reflects systemic problems at the department and warrants further review,” they wrote.

A spokesman for the Office of Inspector General confirmed receipt of the letter and said the request is being evaluated. 

A Commerce spokesman on Wednesday told Government Executive that the department still plans to appeal the judge’s ruling.

At the press conference, activists in Chen’s defense unveiled a separate letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross signed by 132 Asian community organizations urging him to both reinstate Chen and facilitate the probe.

Last week, Chen’s Legal Defense Fund also wrote to the Senior Executives Association asking it to remove from its board the Commerce official whom the judge in Chen’s case criticized for allegedly ignoring exculpatory testimony regarding Chen’s conduct.

That official, Laura Kay Furgione, remains on the SEA board. In a statement to Government Executive, the association said its board “has been made aware of the situation involving the Department of Commerce’s dismissal of an employee and the involvement of SEA Board Member Laura Furgione. Because this is an internal agency personnel matter still being adjudicated by the appropriate bodies, outside of SEA’s purview, SEA will monitor the matter until a final decision is made.”

The association continued: “Consistent with foundational American jurisprudence principles, SEA believes it should await any action until adjudication of the agency personnel matter is completed.” SEA further noted that its board “affirmed its commitment to diversity and inclusion in January 2018 and will work to ensure that all federal employees are treated with dignity and respect."

This story has been updated with comment from the Commerce IG office

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