A Chinese-born engineer was sentenced Monday to more than 15 years in prison for hoarding sensitive information about the U.S. space shuttle that prosecutors say he intended to share with China.
The case against Dongfan "Greg" Chung was the United States' first trial on economic espionage charges. The 74-year-old former Boeing Co. engineer was convicted in July of six counts of economic espionage and other federal charges for keeping 300,000 pages of sensitive papers in his home.
Before sentencing Chung, U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney said he didn't know exactly what information Chung passed to China. "But what I do know is what he did, and what he did pass, hurt our national security and it hurt Boeing," the judge said.
Carney said Chung's scheme with the Chinese government spanned 30 years.
During brief remarks, Chung begged the judge to give him a lenient sentence. He spoke from a podium while wearing a tan prison jumpsuit with his hands cuffed to a belly chain.
‘I am not a spy’
"Your honor, I am not a spy, I am only an ordinary man," he said, adding that he had brought the Boeing documents home to write a book.
"Your honor, I love this country. ... Your honor, I beg your pardon and let me live with my family peacefully."
Despite Chung's age, prosecutors requested a 20-year sentence, in part to send a message to other would-be spies.
But the judge said he couldn't put a value on the amount of information that Chung stole and couldn't determine exactly how much the breaches hurt Boeing and the nation. He also cited the engineer's age and frail health in going with a sentence of 15 years and eight months.
"It's very difficult having to make a decision where someone is going to have to spend the rest of their adult life in prison," Carney said. "I take no comfort or satisfaction in that."
Amassed personal wealth
Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Staples noted in sentencing papers that Chung amassed a personal wealth of more than $3 million while betraying his adopted country.
"The (People's Republic of China) is bent on stealing sensitive information from the United States and shows no sign of relenting," Staples wrote. "Only strong sentences offer any hope of dissuading others from helping the PRC get that technology."
Chung's attorney, Thomas Bienert Jr., has said his client will appeal.
The government accused Chung, a stress analyst with high-level clearance, of using his 30-year career at Boeing and Rockwell International to steal the documents. They said investigators found papers stacked throughout Chung's house that included sensitive information about a booster rocket fueling system — documents that employees were ordered to lock away at the end of each day. They said Boeing invested $50 million in the technology over a five-year period.
During the non-jury trial, Chung's lawyers argued that he may have violated Boeing policy by bringing the papers home, but he didn't break any laws by doing so, and the U.S. government couldn't prove he had given secret information to China.
Began spying in 1970s
In his ruling, Carney wrote that the notion that Chung was merely a pack rat was "ludicrous" and said the evidence showed that he had been passing information to Chinese officials as a spy.
The government believes Chung began spying for the Chinese in the late 1970s, a few years after he became a naturalized U.S. citizen and was hired by Rockwell.
Chung worked for Rockwell until it was bought by Boeing in 1996. He stayed with the company until he was laid off in 2002, then was brought back a year later as a consultant. He was fired when the FBI began its investigation in 2006.
When agents searched Chung's house that year, they discovered more than 225,000 pages of documents on Boeing-developed aerospace and defense technologies, according to trial briefs.
The technologies dealt with a phased-array antenna being developed for radar and communications on the U.S. space shuttle and a $16 million fueling mechanism for the Delta IV booster rocket, used to launch manned space vehicles.
Agents also found documents on the C-17 Globemaster troop transport used by the U.S. Air Force and militaries in Britain, Australia and Canada — but the government later dropped charges related to those finds.
Prosecutors discovered Chung's activities while investigating another suspected Chinese spy living and working in Southern California.
That man, Chi Mak, was convicted in 2007 of conspiracy to export U.S. defense technology to China. He was sentenced to 24 years in prison.