IMAGE: Artist rendering of Chi Mak
Bill Robles  /  AP
Chi Mak, a Chinese-born and naturalized U.S. citizen, listens to testimony on Tuesday in this artist's sketch during his trial in federal court in Santa Ana, Calif. Mak was convicted of conspiring to send technical military systems information to China.
updated 5/11/2007 6:36:16 AM ET 2007-05-11T10:36:16

After a six-week trial, a federal jury convicted a Chinese-born engineer of conspiring to export U.S. defense technology to China, including data on an electronic propulsion system that could make submarines virtually undetectable.

Friends and colleagues knew Chi Mak as an unassuming, brilliant man who worked 12-hour days as an engineer for a defense contractor, rarely went out and scrimped to pay off his 700-square-foot suburban home.

Federal prosecutors portrayed Mak as a polished agent for the Chinese who used his low-key lifestyle and good reputation as a cover for his real work — conspiring to pass U.S. secrets for more than two decades.

The jury sided with the government, also finding Mak guilty of acting as an unregistered foreign agent, attempting to violate export control laws and making false statements to the FBI.

Prosecutors had dropped a charge of the actual export of defense articles.

Mak stared straight ahead and seemed to hold back tears as the verdict was read. One of his attorneys gently rubbed his back.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Staples said Mak faces up to 45 years in prison when he is sentenced Sept. 10.

“We were confident from the start and we’re very happy with the verdict,” Staples said.

Family affair
The government accused Mak, a naturalized U.S. citizen, of taking thousands of pages of documents from his defense contractor employer, Power Paragon of Anaheim, and giving them to his brother, who passed them along to Chinese authorities over a number of years.

Mak was arrested in 2005 in Los Angeles after FBI agents stopped his brother and sister-in-law as they boarded a flight to Hong Kong.

Investigators said they found three encrypted CDs in their luggage that contained documents on a submarine propulsion system, a solid-state power switch for ships and a Power Point presentation on the future of power electronics.

Mak acknowledged during the trial that he copied classified documents from his employer and kept copies in his office. He maintained he didn’t realize that making the copies was illegal.

Chi Mak’s wife, brother and other relatives also have been indicted and go on trial together on June 5. Staples said the government may use the verdict to try to negotiate plea bargains with Mak’s indicted family members, who pleaded not guilty.

Defense attorneys Marilyn Bednarski and Ronald Kaye said they would appeal the verdict, insisting the government had manipulated the facts.

In many instances, the government was allowed to present classified information to U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney in his chambers, and the defense team was not allowed to view the government’s application for a warrant to bug Mak’s house and car, Kaye said.

“It is so absurd to believe that he has been passing technology for 20 years when they had not one witness and not one piece of paper to corroborate this,” Kaye said.

The trial featured testimony from FBI agents, U.S. Navy officials, encryption and espionage experts and the engineer himself.

Confession, naming of 'handler'
Key to the trial was the government’s allegation that Mak confessed to the conspiracy — and even named his so-called “handler” and specific restricted documents — during an untaped jailhouse interview two days after his arrest.

Mak testified he never confessed during that interview, but admitted on cross-examination that he lied repeatedly in an earlier taped interview about the number of times he had visited China and when he told authorities he didn’t have friends or relatives there. He said he felt intimidated during the interrogation.

“This is why I lied,” he said. “They were pushing me that night.”

Mak’s attorneys focused on a paper he had written on the propulsion system that was found in his brother’s luggage at Los Angeles International Airport.

Mak said he believed he was doing nothing wrong by giving the paper to his brother to take out of the country because he had written it for Power Paragon and had presented it at an engineering conference in 2004.

The government, however, alleged the documents were export-controlled and couldn’t fall into foreigners’ hands.

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