Lawyers add to damages suit for Chinese-American scientist Sherry Chen

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Lawyers for a Chinese-American scientist have filed a complaint against the US departments of commerce and justice to support a lawsuit seeking US$5 million in damages resulting from her partially reversed dismissal from a government job.

Charges against National Weather Service hydrologist Xiafen “Sherry” Chen – who had been accused of passing informa­tion about US dams to a Chinese official – were dropped in 2015 after nearly two dozen members of Congress signed a letter requesting an investigation into whether federal employees were being racially targeted. Chen has since remained on administrative leave.

Fearing a new ‘red scare’, activists fight targeting of Chinese-Americans

The complaint – filed on November 1 by Chen’s lawyer, John Hemann of the law firm Cooley LLP, and announced on Tuesday – was made after Chen learned that the Commerce Department unit that investigated her – the Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS) – was disbanded following a Senate committee report that called it “a rogue, unaccountable police force without a clear mission”.

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In 2019, Chen filed a civil suit against the two government departments, seeking accountability for wrongful prosecution. The separate complaint filed this month adds new accusations, including “intrusion into private affairs, false arrest, intentional and/or negligent infliction of emotional distress”, and is required to give the government an opportunity to respond before the claims become part of the lawsuit.

“Sherry Chen’s successful and very private life was derailed when ITMS … launched an illegal criminal investigation of Ms Chen based entirely on one colleague’s false and racially charged accusations,” the complaint says. “ITMS had no legal authority to investigate her, and that what happened to her was part a discriminatory scheme to target employees of Chinese and Southeast Asian descent.”

The complaint continued that “even after the … administrative judge issued a scathing opinion that reinstated Ms Chen, the [Commerce Department] continued to refuse to acknowledge the injury it has caused Ms Chen. Instead, it continues to try to destroy what is left of Ms Chen’s professional career by refusing to let her set foot in the office and appealing the administrative judge’s decision”.

The departments of commerce and justice did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Tuesday’s development comes as pressure grows on President Joe Biden’s administration to address concerns that scrutiny of Chinese government espionage efforts has led to the racial profiling of Asian and Asian-American scientists and researchers by federal agencies.

Asian-Americans push to review China Initiative after concerns of racial profiling

The Biden administration has maintained a number of China-related policies inherited from the administration of former president Donald Trump. Those include the China Initiative, a Department of Justice (DOJ) programme ostensibly focused on bringing prosecutions in economic espionage cases but which advocacy groups say has disproportionately targeted those of Chinese descent.

Calls on the administration to axe the programme surged recently after its first case to go to trial ended in the defendant’s acquittal.

Hu Anming, a professor at University of Tennessee, was cleared of all charges in September after a federal judge ruled that the government failed to provide sufficient evidence that he had intended to defraud Nasa.

But even when charges against individuals like Chen and Hu are dropped, rights groups warn that the reputational, financial and emotional tolls on them and their families remain.

On Monday, civil rights group Asian-Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) wrote to the Biden administration urging it to end the China Initiative, which it said had driven “fearmongering” and the criminalisation of Asian-American and Asian immigrant researchers.

“While we recognise that there are legitimate threats from China’s government, there are serious concerns of the DOJ profiling Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants and criminalising integrity issues under the ‘China Initiative,’” said John Yang, AAJC’s president.

One of the first actions taken by Biden as president was to issue a memorandum denouncing anti-Asian racism and providing guidance to the DOJ on how to process hate crime reports, amid a wave of discrimination against the Asian-American community during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We urge federal agencies to follow President Biden’s commitment to combat racism and xenophobia against those of Asian descent and look forward to these efforts,” AAJC wrote in its letter.

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