Court Digest

Harvard professor on trial for hiding ties with China

BOSTON (AP) — A Harvard University professor charged with hiding his ties to a Chinese-run recruitment program is scheduled to stand trial in Boston.

Jury selection is slated to start Tuesday in the trial of Charles Lieber, the former chair of Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology.

The case was among the highest profile to come from the U.S. Department of Justice’s so-called “China Initiative,” which was launched in 2018 under former President Donald Trump to curb economic and academic espionage from China.

Lieber’s lawyer, Marc Mukasey, didn’t comment Monday ahead of the trial but said last year that “the government has this wrong” and that “when justice is done, Charlie’s good name will be restored.”

Lieber was arrested last January on allegations that he hid his involvement in China’s Thousand Talents Plan, a program designed to recruit people with knowledge of foreign technology and intellectual property to China.

Lieber was paid $50,000 a month by the Wuhan University of Technology in China, given up to $158,000 in living expenses and awarded more than $1.5 million in grants to establish a research lab at the Chinese university, prosecutors said.

In exchange, prosecutors say, Lieber agreed to publish articles, organize international conferences and apply for patents on behalf of the Chinese university.

He pleaded not guilty to charges including two counts of making false statements to authorities.

Lawyer: Prosecution of Rep. Fortenberry ‘political’

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — An attorney for Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry argued in court Monday that the congressman’s prosecution on charges of making false statement to federal authorities is politically motivated.

Defense attorney John Littrell said Fortenberry will argue that he’s facing a “political prosecution” for his statements to federal authorities who were investigating illegal campaign contributions from a foreign national.

Prosecutors disputed the accusation, asserting that Fortenberry lied to federal officials during their investigation into $180,000 in campaign contributions to four U.S. politicians from Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian billionaire of Lebanese descent.

The nine-term GOP congressman faces one charge of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators. Fortenberry has pleaded not guilty.

Fortenberry’s attorney has said the congressman was misled and answered the FBI’s questions to the best of his knowledge.

A judge heard arguments on several pending motions in a court hearing but did not issue any rulings.

Man gets 14 years in prison for investment scam

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A former financial advisor who conned elderly people out of their retirement savings in a real estate investment scam was sentenced Monday to 14 years in federal prison and ordered to pay nearly $12.6 million in restitution to the victims, prosecutors said.

Paul Ricky Mata, 58, of Oceanside was sentenced in Los Angeles after pleading guilty in July to 17 felonies, including mail and wire fraud and concealing assets in bankruptcy, the U.S. attorney’s office said in a statement.

Between 2008 and 2015, Mata convinced people to invest in several businesses that falsely promised annual returns of 5% to 10% on “government-backed tax liens,” distressed homes and commercial properties and “asset-backed deed certificates,” the U.S. attorney’s office said.

 Mata used the money for personal expenses and loans to himself, prosecutors said.

In a sentencing memorandum, prosecutors said many victims were retirees that Mata met through church.

“He prayed with them, professed to share values and beliefs with them, and he acted like they were his friends,” prosecutors said.

Mata had a history of disciplinary actions for misconduct from federal and state regulators in Nevada and California, including fines and suspensions, authorities said.

Mata previously was ordered to pay more than $11.7 million in a 2015 lawsuit filed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and $20.3 million in fines and restitution in a case brought by the California Department of Business Oversight, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

Trucker gets 110 years in prison for fatal pileup

GOLDEN, Colo. (AP) — A truck driver who was convicted of causing a fiery pileup that killed four people and injured six others on Interstate 70 west of Denver was sentenced Monday to 110 years in prison.

District Court Judge Bruce Jones imposed the sentence against Rogel Aguilera-Mederos, 26, after finding it was the mandatory minimum term set forth under state law, The Denver Post reported.

“I will state that if I had the discretion, it would not be my sentence,” the judge said.

Aguilera-Mederos was convicted in October of vehicular homicide and other charges stemming from the April 25, 2019, crash. He testified that the brakes on his semitrailer failed before he plowed into vehicles that had slowed because of another wreck in the Denver suburb of Lakewood.

But prosecutors argued he could have used one of several runaway ramps as his truck barreled down from the mountains. The chain-reaction wreck ruptured gas tanks, causing flames that consumed several vehicles and melted parts of the highway.

Those killed were Miguel Angel Lamas Arellano, 24; William Bailey, 67; Doyle Harrison, 61; and Stanley Politano, 69.

“Sometimes it feels like being half a person when you lose your spouse,” said Kathleen Harrison, who was married to Doyle Harrison. “We were a team.”

A Jefferson County jury convicted Aguilera-Mederos of four counts of vehicular homicide, six counts of first-degree assault, 10 counts of attempted first-degree assault, four counts of careless driving causing death, two counts of vehicular assault and one count of reckless driving.

Aguilera-Mederos, who was hauling lumber, was traveling at least 85 mph (137 kph) on a part of the interstate where commercial vehicles are limited to 45 mph (72 kph) because of a steep descent from the Rocky Mountain foothills, according to investigators. The initial impact caused a 28-vehicle chain-reaction wreck.

Police said that just before the crash, the truck traveled past a ramp on the side of the interstate that is designed to safely stop trucks and other vehicles that have lost their brakes.

Aguilera-Mederos wept as he spoke during the sentencing, apologizing to the families of the victims and asking for their forgiveness.

“I am not a criminal,” he said. “I am not a murderer. I am not a killer. When I look at my charges, we are talking about a murderer, which is not me. I have never thought about hurting anybody in my entire life.”

Ex-deputy charged with throwing scalding water on inmate

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — A former Orange County sheriff’s deputy is accused of throwing scalding water on a mentally ill inmate who didn’t receive medical treatment for his burns for more than six hours, the county district attorney’s office announced Monday.

Guadalupe Ortiz, 47, was charged with felony counts of assault or battery by a public officer and battery with serious bodily injury and could face up to four years in prison if convicted, the DA’s office said in a statement.

Ortiz allegedly filled a cup from a hot water dispenser on April 1 and poured it on the hands of an inmate who had refused to take his hands out of a hatch door in his cell at the sheriff’s Intake Release Center in Santa Ana, prosecutors said.

The DA’s statement described the inmate as mentally ill.

The man suffered first- and second-degree burns but wasn’t treated for about 6 1/2 hours until another deputy making a standard security check noticed that his arm was red and peeling, authorities said.

“The law imputes a special duty of care on custodial personnel and in this case the sheriff’s deputy completely breached that duty and crossed the line into criminal conduct,” District Attorney Todd Spitzer said.

Ortiz was fired Friday after a two-decade career with the Sheriff’s Department, the DA’s office said. It wasn’t immediately clear whether he had an attorney who could speak on his behalf.

County worker charged with stealing $109k in fees, deposits

MIAMI (AP) — A former South Florida government worker has been charged with stealing nearly $109,000 over two years from the Miami-Dade County Clerk of Courts office, prosecutors announced Monday.

Tyrone Derise Smith Jr., 35, has been arrested and charged with grand theft over $100,000 and organized scheme to defraud over $50,000, according to a state attorney’s office news release.

“When government employees steal, they not only grab the public’s money, but they squander the public’s trust in their local government,” State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said in a statement. “Such actions betray our community and can never be accepted or tolerated.”

Smith had been working in the New Suits Section of the Family Court Division for about 11 years when he resigned in June 2018, officials said. The clerk’s office had already started a review following the discovery of missing funds intended for deposit at a local bank.

Around the same time, a customer had complained about the lack of movement on his case, and records showed a filing fee hadn’t been paid for the case, which had been processed by Smith. The customer insisted that he had paid with cash and produced a receipt as proof, but the receipt was a fake, officials said.

Missing deposit funds and the filing fee discrepancy prompted Clerk of Courts staff to conduct an internal audit of all of Smith’s transactions between August 2016 and April 2018, officials said. Investigators reported finding 201 cases processed by Smith that appeared in the database as filed cases yet failed to show collected filing fees. The fees for those cases totaled $80,817. Officials said Smith also pocketed $28,121.16 in Clerk of Courts funds that were supposed to be deposited in May 2018.

Court records didn’t list an attorney for Smith who could comment.

Man sentenced to 8.5 years for rape at car dealership

SEATTLE (AP) — The homeless man accused of raping a woman three years ago in a Ballard car dealership was sentenced to prison, officials said Monday.

Christopher Teel, 27, was ordered to serve a sentence of 8.5-years-to-life after being convicted of first-degree rape and unlawful imprisonment for the incident in 2018 in the bathroom at Carter Volkswagen, a spokesman for the King County Prosecutor’s Office said.

The victim had dropped her vehicle off for service moments before the attack occurred, KOMO-TV reported.

Teel, who is 6-feet-3-inches tall and weighed about 250 pounds at the time, had been accused of following a 40-year-old woman into the women’s bathroom, according to officials and court records.

Teel forced open the bathroom’s stall door, grabbed the victim by the neck and pulled her out. She screamed, and he choked her, court documents say. Teel told her “you want this, God wants this,” before sexually assaulting the woman.

“He was able to gain access to the stall — that’s when he was able to grab me by my throat and my shoulder and he threw me down on the ground in front of the handicap stall and we fought for several minutes,” the woman told a documentary film producer about the attack later.