A discrimination case filed against the U.S. Department of Commerce by a
The case filed by Sherry Chen will be heard on March 14 and 15 in the U.S. Court House in Cincinnati, Ohio, AsAm News
Chen worked for the National Weather Service in Ohio for seven years until October 2014, when six agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested her for allegedly using a stolen password to download data about U.S. dams and lying about meeting a top-ranking Chinese official.
Born in Beijing, Chen became a naturalized American citizen in 1997 and received awards for government service. After 11 years of working in Missouri, she took the job at the weather service in Ohio. There, she developed a forecasting model for flood prediction along the state’s river basin, which involved constant data collection.
Chen’s troubles began in 2012 when a nephew told her that his future father-in-law was in a dispute with provincial officials regarding a water pipeline, The New York Times
reported. He told Chen that her former hydrology classmate, Jiao Yong, became vice minister of China’s Ministry of Water Resources. He then asked if she could contact the vice minister who may be able to help.
Chen and Jiao eventually met in a 15-minute correspondence. Incidentally, the latter mentioned he was also funding repairs for reservoir systems and casually asked her how funding for similar projects works in the U.S. Unfortunately, Chen didn’t know the answer. She then looked for relevant information upon her return to Ohio, sending Jiao a list of related websites.
She coursed through the National Inventory of Dams database, the full access of which required login credentials. As she did not have a password, she asked colleague Ray Davis for help. He sent her the password via email. When she gained access, she downloaded data on Ohio dams she thought would be helpful for her forecasting model.
Chen was still unable to answer Jiao directly at this point. As a result, she sought help from Deborah H. Lee, former chief of the water management division at the Army Corps of Engineers, who told her to ask Jiao to reach out if he needed more information.
Chen sent her second and final email to Jiao, which cited a link to the database with the note, “This database is only for government users, and nongovernment users are not able to download any data from this site.” She also told him to call Lee for further inquiries.
But just after their conversation, Lee reported to security at the Department of Commerce, which oversees the weather service. She wrote:
“I’m concerned that an effort is being made to collect a comprehensive collection of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers water control manuals on behalf of a foreign interest.”
It was all down the drain from there. Chen was interrogated for seven hours at one occasion. She faced several charges and was immediately suspended from work.
In what must have relieved Chen, prosecutors dropped all charges against her after a few months, though without explanation. Former federal prosecutor Peter J. Toren commented:
“They came across a person of Chinese descent and a little bit of evidence that they may have been trying to benefit the Chinese government, but it’s clear there was a little bit of Red Scare and racism involved.”
But with a tarnished reputation and a job so wrongfully taken away, Chen lives with the ordeal’s effects to this date. Witnessing her ongoing battle, the Committee of 100
said in a statement:
“In the time-honored American tradition of standing up and speaking out against injustice and discrimination, Ms. Chen is fighting for her equal rights to be treated fairly and justly. Ms. Chen hopes only to be restored to her job, which she loves. The people of Ohio and America ought not to be deprived of the services and contributions of an intelligent, hardworking, and loyal American.”