A former FBI agent pleaded guilty Wednesday to lying about his sexual relationship with a woman alleged to be a Chinese double agent.
James J. Smith pleaded guilty to a single count of making a false statement and agreed to cooperate with the government.
U.S. District Judge Florence Marie Cooper said Smith faced up to five years in prison, but outside court, defense attorney Brian Sun said the sentencing guidelines indicate his client would serve no more than six months and perhaps no time.
Sun emphasized that Smith admitted only that he had a sexual relationship with the woman, Katrina Leung, and that he lied to the FBI about it. He did not plead guilty to any counts involving misuse of classified information.
Smith, 60, was the longtime handler of Leung, a naturalized citizen and San Marino socialite who was recruited 20 years ago to work for the FBI, gathering intelligence during frequent business trips to China. Prosecutors claim she began working for China around 1990.
Smith was originally charged with gross negligence for allegedly allowing Leung access to classified materials and with mail fraud for allegedly filing false reports to FBI headquarters about her reliability. He faced 40 years in prison if convicted of those charges. The charge to which he pleaded was added in a superseding indictment in February.
Leung, 50, is charged with taking classified documents from Smith’s briefcase, although she has not been accused of relaying that information to China.
She faces up to 14 years in prison if convicted of illegally copying and possessing national security papers that she intended to use, or could have used, to harm the interests of the United States. She has denied the allegations.
‘Guilty, your honor’
Smith, whose wife and son were in court, stood before the judge with his lawyer and recounted his FBI career, which began in 1970, his recruitment of Leung as an FBI asset in 1982 and the beginning of a sexual affair with her in 1983, which continued until his arrest last year.
“What is your plea?” the judge asked.
“Guilty, your honor,” Smith said in a firm voice.
The former agent said that in August 2000, when he was questioned by the FBI during a routine evaluation, “I was asked if there was anything in my background that could compromise me and I said, ‘No.’ ... That statement was false.”
The plea agreement calls for Smith to make himself available to the FBI, the U.S. attorney’s office and foreign intelligence agencies with an interest in the case.
The judge said that if the government finds Smith provided substantial assistance, prosecutors will depart from the maximum sentence and recommend a lower penalty.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Rebecca Lonergan asked the judge for a lengthy period before sentencing because of Smith’s anticipated cooperation. The judge set sentencing for Jan. 10.
Leung’s trial is pending. Her attorneys, Janet Levine and John Van de Veldt, were in court for the plea but did not comment.
Sun later told reporters, “He’s paid a substantial price already. He’s been substantially hurt by this entire process and suffered a great deal. So has his entire family.”
Smith’s plea does not affect his FBI pension.