A world-renowned earthquake engineer who spent more than 30 years with the National Science Foundation engaged in a five-year scheme to pocket thousands of dollars in gifts and fraudulent payments, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Wednesday.
Shih-Chi Liu, 73, of Silver Spring, Md., pleaded guilty to a single count of making a false statement in federal court Wednesday as part of a plea deal that protects him from further prosecution.
Liu joined the Arlington-based National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1975 and spent much of his career there as program director for its Earthquake Hazards Mitigation Program. By 2000, he was director of the Sensors and Sensing Systems Program, which supports research on acquiring and using sensor data on civil, mechanical and manufacturing systems. The program had roughly a $5.5 million annual budget, and Liu had discretion to award grants up to $50,000 without supervision.
He was required to file annual disclosures accounting for gifts and travel reimbursements, such as transportation, lodging and food.
Between September 2006 and June 2010, Liu engaged in a scheme to hide money he received from a Colorado university for travel while billing the NSF for those same expenses — and for arranging for a professor from that university to pay thousands for fake invoices, money Liu would pocket, according to federal court documents.
Court documents do not name the university in Colorado; they describe it only as having “a renowned engineering department.”
Over the course of about five years, Liu pocketed about $15,000, according to a statement of facts filed by the government in federal court in Alexandria. He did this by demanding everything from “spending money” to reimbursements for international travel for he and his wife — “two seats next to each other on exit row would be ideal,” he once told the Colorado professor, court documents state.
Often, Liu would obtain the money by having a professor in Illinois who owned a consulting firm send bogus invoices to his Colorado contact, who would in turn pay Liu using university funds.
Other times, Liu would arrange to have the Colorado professor directly cover the cost of his travel to international research conferences — and he would then bill the NSF for those same expenses.
The Justice Department documented more than a half-dozen cases where one or the other happened — later, he would involve a professor in Italy, too — and noted that in each case, Liu failed to report the money he obtained as required by federal law.
In Liu’s plea agreement, he admitted the government’s statement of facts are correct and he pleaded guilty to a single count of making a false statement — a charge that carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, plus restitution.
Without limiting the ultimate amount of restitution Liu must pay, the government states in the plea agreement that it is currently aware of about $1,600 in damages to the NSF.
“The loss amount for restitution is the loss directly tied to the false statement made to the NSF. In this case, that involves the amount he was reimbursed by NSF when his travel was also paid for by another party,” Peter Carr, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Virginia, told Patch in an email.
The NSF, at 4201 Wilson Blvd., funds nearly 20 percent of federally supported research at American colleges and universities.
This case was investigated by the NSF Office of the Inspector General. Susan Carnohan, a spokeswoman for that office, would not answer any questions.
Liu has won international recognition for his work, including negotiating an intergovernmental agreement between the NSF, the Japanese Ministry of Construction and the Japan Science and Technology Agency.
That agreement “continues to generate major accomplishments, including new discoveries about the source characteristics of earthquakes in Japan and the U.S., a quadrupling of the size of geotechnical engineering databases available to the research communities in both countries, and development of a versatile, inexpensive wireless sensor for detecting cracks in steel structures,” according to the National Science Foundation.
Liu has authored and co-authored numerous books and research papers, including “Earthquake Engineering.”
The International Conference on Earthquake Engineering, held earlier this month in Harbin, China, billed Liu as “a charismatic and creative leader, leveraging multilateral collaboration to increase the safety of our society and the reliability of civil infrastructure and building international understanding and goodwill among engineers and scientists throughout the world.”
He will be sentenced in federal court on Aug. 22.