ACLU and Cooley LLP Join Scientist’s Lawsuit Challenging Discriminatory Investigation and Malicious Prosecution by Rogue Security Unit

Sherry Chen, a Chinese American scientist with the National Weather Service, filed an administrative complaint against the Departments of Commerce and Justice stemming from abuses by the Commerce Department’s internal security unit. This unit, known as the Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS), unlawfully investigated and arrested Ms. Chen as part of a broad pattern of discrimination directed at Chinese Americans. The Commerce Department recently announced that it will disband ITMS, following a Senate report detailing how the unit had evolved into a “rogue, unaccountable police force” that operated outside the law and “opened frivolous investigations on a variety of employees without evidence suggesting wrongdoing.”

“The government’s investigation and prosecution of me was discriminatory and unjustified,” said Sherry Chen. “The Commerce Department should be held accountable for the conduct of its illegal security unit, which has had a devastating impact on my life and the lives of so many other federal employees.”

The complaint describes how the unlawful investigation and prosecution of Ms. Chen is part of a broader pattern of government discrimination against Chinese American scientists. This discrimination is also at the heart of the so-called 'China Initiative,’ which was launched by the Trump administration and continues to this day under the Biden administration.

“Until the Biden administration abandons the China Initiative and its discriminatory profiling of Chinese American scientists, we will continue to see baseless prosecutions like Ms. Chen’s,” said Ashley Gorski, senior staff attorney at the ACLU National Security Project. “This biased approach has led to failed prosecutions around the country, with horrific consequences for the lives of those affected.”

Based on ITMS’ improper investigation of Ms. Chen, in 2014, the Justice Department charged her with making false statements to government investigators and unlawfully downloading data from a restricted government database. The government’s unfounded allegations rested on Ms. Chen’s use of a shared, office-wide password to access a database relevant to her work. The Justice Department eventually dropped all charges in 2015, but not before Ms. Chen was publicly arrested in front of her colleagues and told she faced a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison and $1 million in fines. The Commerce Department also terminated Ms. Chen’s employment. After a federal administrative judge found that the termination was unlawful, the department placed her on indefinite leave, where she remains to this day.

Although the fabricated criminal case fell apart and her termination was found to be unlawful, the Commerce Department has done nothing to remedy, address, or even acknowledge the harms and injustices suffered by Ms. Chen.

“The Commerce Department has repeatedly refused to take responsibility for destroying Ms. Chen’s career,” said John Hemann, partner at Cooley LLP. “Now that the public knows the truth about ITMS’ abuses, the Department must be held accountable.”

In 2019, Ms. Chen filed a civil suit against the U.S. government, seeking accountability for its wrongful prosecution. The claims in Ms. Chen’s new administrative complaint — for intrusion into private affairs, negligent training and supervision, false arrest, intentional and/or negligent infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy — will be incorporated into Ms. Chen’s civil suit if the Commerce and Justice Departments refuse to compensate her for the harms they inflicted.

“Ms. Chen is an award-winning hydrologist whose career was completely derailed by the government’s groundless investigation and prosecution,” said Michele Young, counsel for Ms. Chen. “We will not stop fighting for justice for Ms. Chen — and so many other Asian Americans who were targeted by ITMS because of their ethnicity.”

Ms. Chen is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, Cooley LLP, Michele Young, and Peter Toren.

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