LOS ANGELES – A Southern California woman was arrested Tuesday morning on federal charges that accuse her of conspiring to procure and illegally export sensitive space communications technology to her native China, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced.
Si Chen, also known as Cathy Chen, 32, is expected to be arraigned Tuesday afternoon in United States District Court on charges contained in an indictment that was returned by a federal grand jury on April 27 and was unsealed Tuesday after her arrest.
The 14-count indictment accuses Chen of violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), which controls and restricts the export of certain goods and technology from the United States to foreign nations. Chen is also charged with conspiracy, money laundering, making false statements on an immigration application, and using a forged passport.
According to the indictment, from March 2013 to December 2015, Chen purchased and smuggled sensitive items to China without obtaining licenses from the U.S. Department of Commerce that are required under IEEPA.
Those items allegedly included components commonly used in military communications “jammers” from which Chen removed the export-control warning stickers prior to shipping.
Additionally, Chen is suspected of smuggling communications devices worth more than $100,000 that are commonly used in space communications applications. On the shipping paperwork Chen falsely valued the items at $500. The indictment further describes how Chen received payments for the illegally exported products through an account held at a bank in China by a family member.
“Federal export laws are designed to protect American interests by preventing the proliferation of technology that may fall into the wrong hands,” said Acting United States Attorney Sandra R. Brown. “We will vigorously pursue those who traffic items that could harm our national security if they land in the wrong hands.”
Chen was taken into custody Tuesday morning without incident by special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Export Enforcement (OEE); and the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS).
“One of HSI’s top enforcement priorities is preventing sensitive technology from falling into the hands of those who might seek to harm America or its interests,” said Joseph Macias, special agent in charge for HSI Los Angeles.
“The export of items like those identified in this case are tightly controlled with good reason. Given what’s at stake, HSI will continue to work closely with its law enforcement partners to combat this threat and hold the perpetrators accountable for putting the U.S. at risk.”
In addition to the export violations, Chen is also charged with employing several aliases and using a forged passport in an effort to conceal her alleged smuggling activities on behalf of unnamed co-conspirators in China.
The indictment alleges the defendant used a Chinese passport bearing her photo and a false name – “Chunping Ji” – to rent an office in Pomona where she took delivery of the export-controlled items.
After receiving the goods, the indictment alleges Chen shipped the devices to Hong Kong in parcels that bore her false name, along with false product descriptions and monetary values, all done in an effort to avoid attracting law enforcement scrutiny.
Under IEEPA, it is crime to willfully export or attempt to export items that appear on the Commerce Control List without a license from the U.S. Department of Commerce. These are items authorities have determined could be detrimental to regional stability and national security.
“The partnership between OEE, HSI and DCIS was critical in the apprehension of Si Chen,” said Richard Weir, Special Agent in Charge of Commerce’s Office of Export Enforcement Los Angeles Field Office.
“We will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to identify, deter, and prevent any suspected violations.”
“The Defense Criminal Investigative Service and our law enforcement partners will relentlessly pursue anyone who violates laws that are designed to preserve and protect the Department of Defense’s critical technologies,” stated Chris Hendrickson, Special Agent in Charge, Defense Criminal Investigative Service. “Precious DoD resources are invested in technology, and its theft puts our brave soldiers, marines and airmen at risk.”
If convicted of the 14 charges in the indictment, Chen would face a statutory maximum penalty of 150 years in prison.
This case is the result of an ongoing investigation being conducted by HSI, OEE and DCIS. The probe began in 2015 after U.S. Customs and Border Protection alerted HSI about a suspicious parcel its officers intercepted that contained communications equipment sent by “Chunping Ji.”
The case against Chen is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Judith A. Heinz of the National Security Division in the United States Attorney’s Office.