The U.S. government’s China expert for an economic espionage criminal trial copied verbatim from Wikipedia large portions of a report summarizing his proposed testimony and should be disqualified, defense attorneys said.
The expert is James Feinerman, an Asian law scholar and associate dean for transnational programs at Georgetown University Law Center. He allegedly copied parts of 13 pages of his 19-page report from Wikipedia entries on China’s economy, high-technology development plan and Communist party, according to Stuart Gasner, a lawyer for a California businessman indicted last year in a trade secrets case. The report, which was filed in San Francisco federal court, doesn’t mention Wikipedia.
“Feinerman’s pervasive plagiarism from this unreliable and error-prone source, which has been rejected by federal courts all over the country, casts serious doubt on the reliability of his entire testimony,” Gasner said in a court filing.
Feinerman declined to comment on the dispute. Prosecutors said the professor “used” Wikipedia, while asserting that doesn’t make his opinions unreliable.
The U.S. hired Feinerman, who said in court papers he charges $350 an hour, to testify at the January trial of Walter Liew, who was indicted for conspiring to steal trade secrets from DuPont Co. for China’s Pangang Group Co. A hearing on the defense request to disqualify the professor had been scheduled for Nov. 14 and was canceled by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White, who may rule any time in coming weeks based on written submissions.
Excluding the witness may be another setback for federal prosecutors, who have failed to meet legal requirements for summoning Pangang to face conspiracy charges in the case, a prerequisite for bringing the company to trial.
Feinerman’s role in the case is to provide an overview of the Chinese government’s attempts to persuade its citizens overseas to steal trade secrets, according to his report.
Prosecutors said that while the professor’s report uses language that “tracks various Wikipedia entries,” he relied on a host of sources, both in English and Chinese, including material gathered during the investigation of Liew, books, articles, websites and reports, to support his opinions and conclusions. His education and experience make him “extremely qualified” as an expert, according to the government’s court filing.
Feinerman “utilized language from Wikipedia as a concise English-language summary of his opinions on certain topics,” assistant U.S. attorneys Peter Axelrod and John Hemann said in a court filing.
A Georgetown faculty member for more than 25 years, Feinerman has studied in Hong Kong and China, and has taught law at two Chinese universities, speaks fluent Mandarin and Cantonese, co-edited two books about China and testified about China’s information control practices before Congress. He was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1989.
Marisa Kashino, a spokeswoman for Washington-based Georgetown Law, declined to comment on the Wikipedia-copying allegations.
Josh Eaton, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag in San Francisco, didn’t respond to e-mail or voicemail messages seeking comment on the matter.
Courts have wrestled for years with whether material culled from the collaborative online encyclopedia, to which anyone with Internet access can anonymously contribute, is reliable as evidence.
While an expert witness’s qualifications matter, judges must determine whether the methods and principles underlying their opinions are reliable and valid, said David Faigman, a University of California Hastings College of the Law professor who specializes in constitutional law and scientific evidence.
“I can’t just rely on the expert’s qualifications,” Faigman said in a phone interview. “I have to rely on what has been provided to me, and what has been provided is cut and pasted Wikipedia pages.”
The judge may look at whether the Wikipedia entries Feinerman used are based on credible sources, said Ashish Arun, an attorney who writes a blog about expert witness rulings.
“The least an expert can do is rely on sources that cannot be questioned,” Arun said in a phone interview. “A lot will depend on how the judge feels about the expert using Wikipedia as a source.”
In one passage, Feinerman’s report states that the Organization Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee “is a secretive and highly trusted agency, and it is at the heart of China’s Leninist party system. It controls the more than 70 million party personnel assignments throughout the national system, and compiles detailed and confidential reports on future potential leaders of the Party.”
The Wikipedia page on the Organization Department has an almost identical passage that uses the phrasing “institutional heart of the Leninist party system.”
Liew, of Orinda, California, about 17 miles (27.4 kilometers) east of San Francisco, was charged with two former DuPont employees with selling the secrets to Pangang Group so it could develop a large-scale factory to make a white pigment used in paint, plastics and paper, prosecutors said.
The government obtained documents that it alleges show Liew was directed by a Chinese government official to acquire technology needed to build the pigment manufacturing factories, according to court filings.
In one document the Federal Bureau of Investigation says it found on a computer hard drive Liew kept in a safe deposit box, he allegedly said he was a guest of a communist party official at a banquet held to thank him for providing technologies important to national security and said he was told by the official of a “key task project” involving the pigment manufacturing process.
Federal prosecutors are seeking to have an expert witness selected by the defense to testify about this matter excluded from the case.
Stanford Law School research fellow and lecturer Donald Lewis, hired by Liew’s attorney to rebut Feinerman’s testimony, said in a report that Liew was engaged in “Chinese puffery” in a bid to enhance his professional profile with a prospective client.
Liew, an American citizen of Chinese descent, tried to use cultural traditions such as guanxi, in which business people establish relationships and are expected to exchange favors, Lewis said in a report summarizing his testimony.
“Lewis’s attempts to explain the mindset of the defendant as he drafted a letter in 2004 is based on nothing but rank speculation,” prosecutors said in a court filing. “His apparent contention that ethnic Chinese engage, culturally, in ‘puffery’ is nothing more than ethnic stereotyping.”
Lewis, who taught law in Hong Kong and lived in China, called the government’s allegations “outrageous.”
“I’m discussing Chinese culture and I was a part of Chinese culture for 25 years,” he said today in a phone interview. “I’m not just speculating, I lived it,” he added. “I’m in a position to say something about it.”
The case is U.S. v. Liew, 11-cr-00573, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).