Ohio scientist accused of spying sues government after charges dropped

Posted at 1:22 PM, Jan 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-22 13:23:05-05

CINCINNATI — A scientist who was dismissed from her job with the National Weather Service after she was accused of spying for China is suing the U.S. government, accusing authorities of malicious prosecution and false arrest.

Federal authorities arrested Xiafen "Sherry" Chen in 2014, saying she used a stolen password to download secret information about U.S. dams and passed the details to a Chinese official, according to her attorneys. However, the U.S. Attorney's Office eventually dropped the charges against her.

In the lawsuit filed in U.S. district court in Cincinnati last week, Chen and her attorneys, Michele Young and Peter Toren, wrote that authorities destroyed her reputation with the "unjust arrest" based on "malicious lies." She also lost her pay and benefits from an unpaid suspension that followed her arrest.

"An unsubstantiated and patently racist accusation set into motion a modern-day witch hunt where hundreds of thousands of our tax dollars were spent to try to prove a 'Chinese national' a spy with exculpatory evidence buried by government officials," Young said in a news release. "We must bring justice to Sherry Chen as a matter of decency, fairness and the American way. What happened to Ms. Chen should not happen to any American ever again."

Chen moved to the U.S. from China in 1992 and became a citizen in 1997. After working as a hydrologist for Missouri, the National Weather Service hired her for its Ohio River Forecast Center in Wilmington.

According to Chen's new lawsuit, she "was a stellar employee" with no disciplinary warnings of any kind during her time at the NWS, and she "received many accolades" for her work forecasting flood models for the Ohio River and its tributaries.

In 2012, another government employee accused Chen of spying. A year later, her attorneys said, she was interrogated for hours. And then she was arrested in October 2014.

Chen's attorneys said no password was stolen and no secret information was passed to a Chinese official. But Chen faced $1 million in fines and 25 years in prison, until prosecutors dropped the charges a week before trial "without explanation or apology," according to Young and Toren.

Despite the charges being dropped, Chen was fired from her job. Last April, U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board Judge Michele Szary Schroeder reviewed the firing and found that officials buried evidence that would have cleared Chen, according to her attorneys. The judge wrote that the officials who fired Chen were "more concerned about being right than doing the right thing."

The judge ordered the Commerce Department to reinstate Chen, pay her back and pay legal fees. The Commerce Department has appealed this ruling.

The appeal has not been heard yet "because of a lack of judges," her attorneys said. In the meantime, she hasn't returned to work at the NWS.

"If the government had properly conducted the investigation from the beginning, and not acted in a malicious manner targeting a loyal and patriotic American, Sherry Chen would never have been prosecuted and her life would not have been destroyed. We are working to bring justice to Sherry to restore her life to the extent possible, and perhaps to help prevent future injustices," Toren said in a news release. "As a former federal prosecutor, I had expected the federal government to have acted in a more responsible and ethical fashion."