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1st of 5 accused in Chinese spy case begins trial

Prosecutors say Downey man conspired to move military data without permission. Defense says the government is overstating its case.

March 29, 2007|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

A naturalized U.S. citizen acted out of loyalty to his homeland when he illegally transferred sensitive technical information about military projects to Chinese intelligence officials for more than 20 years, federal prosecutors said Wednesday at the opening of his trial.

Chi Mak, 67, has been held without bail since his arrest on Oct. 28, 2005. His defense team denied that he did anything wrong and accused the government of building its case against him by overstating the evidence and portraying him as a spy when no classified information was given to China.

Defense attorney Marilyn E. Bednarski said the FBI made faulty translations of documents and conversations in Chinese "to fit a spy-type profile" of Mak.

Each side laid out its case to an eight-woman, four-man jury in lengthy opening statements in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana in the morning before the government began calling witnesses in the afternoon.

Asst. U.S. Atty. Gregory W. Staples portrayed Mak, who lived in Downey, as a villain who sold out his adopted country. Bednarski said Mak was a loyal American and a victim of "misperception and prejudice."

Mak is an internationally known electrical engineer who worked at Power Paragon, an Anaheim defense contractor that was developing a quiet electric-drive propulsion system for U.S. Navy submarines. He and four others have been accused of conspiring to transfer sensitive technical military information to the People's Republic of China.

None of the information was classified, and much of it can be found on the Internet, but prosecutors said the five failed to get permission from the State Department and Power Paragon to export the documents.

Mak, the first defendant to go to trial, has been charged with 15 counts of conspiring to violate export laws, exporting or attempting to export defense information to China, acting as an agent of the Chinese government and lying to the FBI.

Also charged are his wife, Rebecca Laiwah Chiu; his brother, Tai Mak, and his wife, Fuk Heung Li, and their son, Yui "Billy" Mak. All are awaiting trial.

Perhaps the most damaging evidence that Staples laid out was Mak's alleged confession to two Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents two days after his arrest. In the interview in jail, Mak allegedly admitted sending technical information about military technologies to China since 1983, including details about super-secret radar used on Navy destroyers that the Chinese navy now uses. Mak told the agents he was still loyal to China, Staples said. The prosecutor suggested that China developed the technology with help from Mak's information.

But Bednarski said the agents' report is filled with lies. She raised questions about the interview because it was not videotaped, unlike other government interviews with Mak and the other defendants.

Much of the government's case against Mak revolves around three computer disks containing information about sensitive military projects he had worked on at Paragon. Two disks had reports he coauthored and delivered at public symposiums that foreign scientists attended.

Mak gave copies of the disks to his brother and co-defendant, Tai Mak. The brothers were arrested the night Tai Mak was scheduled to fly to China with the disks. The government alleged that the information was for the benefit of the Chinese military, but Bednarski said Tai Mak was taking it to an engineer and friend in China who owns a business.

Although the information on the disks was discussed at the symposium, Staples said it was covered by the United States Munitions List, which prohibits its export to China. The United States has embargoed arms shipments to China.

However, the papers Mak presented at the symposiums were not put on the munitions list until after his arrest.

Bednarski said this proves Mak did not break the law because he was assuming there were no restrictions on exporting the disks.

Staples said Bednarski was misrepresenting the statute, because although the documents themselves were not on the list at the time, the technology they covered was. He said Mak was required to get permission from the State Department and Paragon before sending the disks to China.

The trial resumes today with testimony from an FBI agent.

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