Justice Department Drops Charges Against Federal Employee Accused of Illegally Downloading Data
Washington, DC — On March 10, 2015, only days before trial was set to begin, the US Department of Justice dropped charges against a federal employee that it had accused of illegally downloading data from a restricted government database.
Arent Fox LLP White Collar & Investigations partner Peter R. Zeidenberg represented Xiafen “Sherry” Chen, an Ohio hydrologist who was accused by prosecutors of illegally accessing a restricted area of the database and downloading sensitive files from the National Inventory of Dams, which includes information on about 87,000 dams and is controlled by the US Army Corps of Engineers and the National Dam Safety Review Board. Federal prosecutors claimed before the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio that it was possibly done on behalf of Chinese officials.
“My client is overjoyed that the Justice Department took the rare, but warranted step of seeking to dismiss a case,” said Mr. Zeidenberg. “This is yet another example of how the proliferation in regulations carrying potential prison sentences is making it possible for a simple mistake to be treated as a felony.” Arent Fox associates Sean Clerget and Andrew F. Solinger also worked on the case.
In United States v. Xiafen “Sherry” Chen, Ms. Chen was indicted in October 2014 and pleaded not guilty to eight counts, including charges of illegally accessing a US government computer database, theft of US government property, and making materially false statements to federal agents. Prosecutors said Ms. Chen illegally accessed the restricted information after meeting with a former Chinese colleague while in China in 2012, but she was not charged with providing restricted data to anyone.
Mr. Zeidenberg argued successfully that the federal criminal statute barring the unauthorized use of a protected government database was being wielded in a “literally unprecedented” way, pointing out that it was previously used to prosecute individuals who downloaded information for improper purposes, such as tax fraud. Critically, the information Ms. Chen downloaded never left her government computer.
A former federal prosecutor, Mr. Zeidenberg spent nearly two decades at the Department of Justice, where he served in both the Public Integrity Section of the Criminal Division and at the United States Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia.
Arent Fox’s White Collar & Investigations practice is recognized by Chambers USA for its “success” counseling high profile clients and “tremendous” recent growth. The group offers extensive experience in the high-stakes representation of corporations, executives, managers, and public officials. The team routinely works on both internal and external investigations surrounding potential allegations of corporate misconduct and personal criminal liability involving securities law, banking, financial services, accounting, and all matters relating to kickbacks, bribery, and corruption.