Chinese American hydrologist Sherry Chen, who was wrongfully arrested and fired after being accused of spying for China, won a $1.8 million settlement in two lawsuits filed against the U.S. government.
Chen, a hydrologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the National Weather Service, was arrested in 2014 and charged with espionage by the FBI.
She was accused of illegally taking sensitive information from a government database about American dams and sharing it with Chinese scientists. Further investigation showed that Chen only intended to use an office-wide password to gain access to a database for work. In March 2015, the Justice Department dropped its charges against Chen due to lack of evidence. But that didn’t stop her from being terminated from her job for the same reasons that led to the federal case.
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Chen won a wrongful termination grievance against the Merit Systems Protection Board, a government agency that oversees employment cases involving federal employees. The Commerce Department, which oversees the National Weather Service, appealed. Then, in 2019, Chen filed a civil suit against the U.S. government for malicious prosecution and false arrest, seeking $5 million in damages.
In the end, Chen won $550,000 as well as $1.25 million to be paid in installments over the next decade.
“The government’s investigation and prosecution of me was discriminatory and unjustified,” Chen said in a statement. “The Commerce Department is finally being held responsible for its wrongdoing … No one else should have to endure this injustice.”
“Ms. Chen’s historic settlement is a victory for her and for Chinese American communities,” added Ashley Gorski, senior staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. “It makes clear that profiling and discrimination are unacceptable, and that the government will be held to account.”
Chen isn’t the first Chinese American academic to seek damages from the government after being arrested for spying. In May 2015, FBI agents arrested Xiaoxing Xi, a physicist at Temple University, in front of his family at gunpoint for allegedly sharing trade secrets with China. The charges against Xi were eventually dropped as a result of lack of evidence, but he lost funding and still fears the U.S. government spying on him.