University that housed Biden center pressed to end FBI China spy probe after big Beijing donations

University of Pennsylvania, which hosted the Penn Biden Center where classified documents were found in November, received $47.7 million from China in the three years when Biden was affiliated with it.

Published: January 11, 2023 4:23pm

Updated: January 12, 2023 12:33pm

The University of Pennsylvania, the Ivy League institution which collected tens of millions of dollars from China while paying Joe Biden and hosting his foreign policy think tank, successfully pressured the Biden Justice Department to end an FBI counterespionage program targeting Beijing's increasing influence within U.S. academia.

Attorney General Merrick Garland shut down the FBI's so-called China initiative in February 2022 shortly after more than 160 members of the University of Pennsylvania faculty signed and made public an open letter demanding the program be shuttered, on the grounds that it amounted to racial profiling. The faculty letter was part of a larger university battle against the program.   

"We acknowledge the importance to the United States of protecting both intellectual property and information that is essential to our national and economic security," read the letter made public on Feb. 9. "We understand that concerns about Chinese government sanctioned activities including intellectual property theft and economic espionage are important to address.

"We believe, however, that the China Initiative has deviated significantly from its claimed mission: it is harming the United States' research and technology competitiveness and it is fueling biases that, in turn, raise concerns about racial profiling." 

A handful of left-leaning universities, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, had also previously appealed to the DOJ to close down the program. 

Two weeks after the letter was sent, Garland announced the termination of the program, sending shockwaves through federal law enforcement.

The DOJ's own website still includes, to this day, a lengthy recitation of criminal cases the 4-year-old program had brought against members of academia who were working with China — either on espionage charges or failure to disclose foreign monies, as is required by law.

Just a month prior to the Garland decision, FBI Director Christopher Wray traveled to the Reagan presidential library to give a speech pleading for the government to devote more attention and resources to combating China's devastating influence inside the United States. He specifically cited cases where Beijing had used university academics to do its bidding. The FBI boss claimed China's espionage has become "more brazen, [and] more damaging." 

"China's government has the global reach and presence of a great nation, but it refuses to act the part and too often uses its capabilities to steal and threaten, rather than to cooperate and build," he argued. "That theft, those threats, are happening right here in America, literally every day." 

Just the News reached out to both the Justice Department, to confirm whether Penn ever officially lobbied the DOJ directly, and also to the university itself. Neither institution responded.

Penn has long ties to both the Biden family and China. Its former president, Amy Gutmann, for instance, was named by the president in 2021 to be his ambassador to Germany.

During her Senate confirmation, Gutmann acknowledged the university took money from Chinese interests but insisted it did not affect the school's values and that the university even rejected creating a Confucius Institute on campus funded by entities tied to the Chinese government.

"What I do know, and what I make sure of, is that no gifts, no contracts, to the University of Pennsylvania are allowed to threaten academic freedom, are allowed to threaten national security," she testified. "We do no classified research."

Penn is in the limelight now after the revelation Monday that classified documents from Biden's vice presidency — including top secret items and intelligence on Ukraine and Iran — were found last November in Biden's old office at the Penn Biden Center think tank, where he worked in D.C. from 2017 to 2019.

The White House claimed the memos were found by lawyers cleaning out Biden's old office. Multiple news organizations reported Wednesday that more classified documents were found at a second location used by Biden.

The university has said it did not solicit any donations specifically to fund the Penn Biden Center, funding it out of its operating budget while also paying Biden a handsome sum to be an honorary professor who did not teach classes but made occasional appearance or lectures.

Biden's tax returns reviewed by Just the News show Penn paid the future president $911,644 between spring 2017 and spring 2019, when he stepped aside to run for president.

Reports compiled by the conservative watchdog group National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC) from disclosures to the Department of Education showed that Penn collected more than $67.6 million in donations and contracts from China between 2013 and 2019. The vast majority of that money, $47.7 million, flowed during the three years Biden was employed by the university, the records show.

The Chinese money poured in most rapidly in the four months after Biden opened the center in February 2018, a period during which nearly $20 million came through, including a $14.5 million anonymous gift on May 28, 2018, according to a complaint the NLPC filed with the Department of Education in May of 2020. The complaint requested that the department investigate all the Chinese gifts to Penn and the Penn Biden Center, alleging that the gifts listed as anonymous were "in clear violation" of the Higher Education Act's requirement that "all gifts or contracts exceeding $250,000 must disclose the foreign ownership and control of the gift or contract."

"The University of Pennsylvania and the Penn Biden Center are particularly vulnerable to China government influences due to the large amounts of China donations and contracts," the NLPC alleged in the complaint.

The NLPC filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on Tuesday seeking "all documents, including but not limited to emails, text messages, communications, memoranda, and photographs, that refer to the discovery and handling of classified and other presidential records that were in a closet at the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement." 

"They do get money from China, either directly or indirectly," NLPC counsel Paul Kamenar told Just the News. "With Hunter [Biden], it was directly from an energy company. It's a fact that UPenn has received some $60 million in Chinese donations, $22 million of which is anonymous. The actual donors should be disclosed. Not simply that it's 'from China.'" 

The watchdog group filed a complaint with the DOJ in October 2020 urging that the center be investigated for failure to register as "foreign agents" under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The university has denied any wrongdoing.

Penn has been very "opaque" when confronted with these discrepancies, and "it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to realize the money from China to the school is not going to Pennsylvania's music department," said Kamenar. "It's going to UPenn's international program, of which the Biden Center is one of the top beneficiaries."

Kamenar also raised several other questions and concerns, including how the classified documents in question ended up in the Biden Center in the first place when it didn't even open its doors until two years after the former vice president had left office. 

Noting that the White House is claiming Biden was vacating the Penn-Biden Center office space, Kamenar said he spoke with the leasing manager of the building, who said the center still had 4-5 years left on its lease. 

"Why would you have high powered attorneys be your movers?" Kamenar asked. "That's a high price to pay for a mover. What were the lawyers doing there in the first place? I'd like to know their names."

Penn boasts numerous programs in China, including "currently [having] over 20 international partnerships with Chinese institutions, including Shanghai Jiao Tong University, with whom Penn first entered into an agreement in 1980," according to its website. "Faculty from all of Penn's 12 schools have reported over 350 research projects and instructional activities in China, including many of the projects presented at the annual Penn China Research Symposium." 

Several security experts interviewed by Just the News said the loss of the China Initiative after pressure from schools like Penn was a serious blow to the FBI's ability to fight Chinese espionage threats in the academic world.

"This may be the best $67 million investment the CCP has ever made," retired FBI intelligence chief Kevin Brock told Just the News. "By donating a stunning amount of money to an American university with deep ties to Joe Biden, China was able to have a major impediment to its strategy of targeting American academic researchers across the country completely removed courtesy of Biden's Attorney General Merrick Garland.

"Bottom line," Brock added, "the FBI's China Initiative worked against a known national security threat. The idea that it was racially biased is absurd and certainly less so than the common practice of admissions discrimination against Asian American students so common in many Ivy League schools."

Former National Security Advisor John Bolton said the Biden DOJ's closing of the FBI counterintelligence program was "a huge mistake" and that arguments by universities like Penn that the program was racist were preposterous.

"It obviously has nothing to do with race," Bolton said on the John Solomon Reports podcast Wednesday. "There's long been great relations between the people of China and the people of the United States. And the past 70-plus years, it's been the communist government of China. That's been the problem. And they're the ones that were conducting the espionage. They've been all over American universities."

Among Congressional investigators, there is a broader concern that the Penn Biden Center and the flow of Chinese money to the host university may have been part of a larger China influence operation targeting the Biden family, one that U.S. banks began flagging with suspicious activity reports to the Treasury Department in 2013 — after Hunter Biden joined his father on a trip to Beijing and began scoring overseas business deals.

In the 2017-18 time period, while the center was set up, Hunter Biden was deep in negotiations with a Chinese energy company called CEFC on a deal to route U.S. natural gas and energy assets to the Chinese. The deal included the Biden family getting a $5 million no interest, forgiveable loan from Chinese sources, according to a document found on a laptop seized by the FBI.

The loan arrangement, confirmed in documents previously obtained by Just the News and information released by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), shows that CEFC Beijing International Energy Company Limited understood the transaction would greatly benefit Joe Biden's family (referred to as "BD family" in emails). 

In one case uncomfortably close to the first family, Patrick Ho, one of Hunter Biden's business partners in the CEFC China energy deal, was charged with using a U.S. think tank to carry out a scheme to bribe officials in Africa over energy deals.

Patrick Ho, a CEFC executive who worked closely with Hunter Biden before his arrest, was eventually convicted in a federal court in Manhattan of multiple felonies and sentenced to three years in prison.

The DOJ alleged that Ho also tried to broker arms transactions and other business with Iran in violation of Western sanctions. Ho wrote an email in 2014 — before he connected with the Biden family — saying that "Iran has money in a bank in China which is under sanction" and that it wished to purchase precious metals through a bank in Hong Kong, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court.

At least one of the classified documents that Joe Biden's lawyer found at his private think tank office at the Penn Biden Center in Washington involved intelligence on Iran, according to multiple media reports.

You can follow John on Twitter @JsolomonReports and you can follow Nick on Twitter @NgivasDC

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