The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Yesterday, a grand jury returned an indictment in federal court in Brooklyn charging five defendants with various crimes pertaining to a transnational repression scheme orchestrated on behalf of the government of the People's Republic of China (PRC)….
Three of the defendants—Fan "Frank" Liu, Matthew Ziburis, and Qiang "Jason" Sun—allegedly perpetrated in the transnational repression scheme to target U.S. residents whose political views and actions are disfavored by the PRC government, such as advocating for democracy in the PRC. Among other items, the defendants plotted to destroy the artwork of a PRC national residing in Los Angeles, California that was critical of the PRC government, and planted surveillance equipment in the artist's workplace and car to spy on him from the PRC. Liu and Ziburis were arrested pursuant to a criminal complaint in March 2022, while Sun remains at large.
There are two new defendants charged in the scheme, Craig Miller and Derrick Taylor. Miller is a 15-year employee of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), currently assigned as a Deportation Officer to DHS's Enforcement and Removal Operations in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Taylor is a retired DHS law enforcement agent who presently works as a private investigator in Irvine, California. The charges against Miller and Taylor pertain to their alleged obstruction of justice, including by destroying evidence, after they were approached by agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and asked about their procurement and dissemination of sensitive and confidential information from a restricted federal law enforcement database regarding U.S.-based dissidents from the PRC. This information was used by Liu and Sun in the transnational repression scheme. Both Miller and Taylor were arrested pursuant to a criminal complaint in June 2022….
"We will defend the rights of people in the United States to engage in free speech and political expression, including views the PRC government wants to silence" said Assistant Attorney General for National Security Olsen. "As charged, these individuals aided agents of a foreign government in seeking to suppress dissenting voices who have taken refuge here. The defendants include two sworn law enforcement officers who choose to forsake their oaths and violate the law. This indictment is the next step in holding all of these defendants responsible for their crimes." …
According to court documents, Liu, a resident of Jericho, Long Island, is president of a purported media company based in New York City; Ziburis, a resident of Oyster Bay, Long Island, is a former correctional officer for the State of Florida and a bodyguard; Sun is a PRC-based employee of an international technology company; Miller is a 15-year employee of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), currently assigned as a Deportation Officer to DHS's Emergency Relief Operations in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Taylor is a retired DHS law enforcement agent who presently works as a private investigator in Irvine, California.
As alleged, Liu and Ziburis are charged with conspiring to act as agents of the PRC government. Liu, Ziburis, and Sun are charged with conspiring to commit interstate harassment and criminal use of a means of identification. Liu and Sun are charged with conspiring to bribe a federal official in connection with their scheme to obtain the tax returns of a pro-democracy activist residing in the United States. Both Miller and Taylor are charged with obstruction of justice, while Taylor is charged with making a false statement to the FBI….
As set forth in court filings, Liu and Ziburis operated under Sun's direction and control to discredit pro-democracy PRC dissidents residing in the United States—including in New York City, California, and Indiana—by spying on them and disseminating negative information about them. For example, at Sun's direction, Liu paid a private investigator in Queens to bribe an Internal Revenue Service employee to obtain the federal tax returns of one of the dissidents. The private investigator was cooperating with law enforcement, and no Internal Revenue Service employee received a bribe payment. The defendants planned to publicly disclose the dissident's potential tax liabilities to discredit him. The co-conspirators also made plans to destroy the artwork of a dissident artist whose work is critical of the PRC government, and the artist's sculpture depicting PRC President Xi Jinping as a coronavirus molecule was demolished in the Spring of 2021. Sun paid both Liu and Ziburis for these efforts to stalk, harass, and surveil dissidents residing in the United States.
As part of their efforts, Liu, Ziburis, and Sun electronically spied on the pro-democracy activists. For example, posing as an art dealer interested in purchasing the artwork of the dissident artist, Ziburis secretly installed surveillance cameras and GPS devices at the dissident's workplace and in his car. While in the PRC, Sun watched the live video feed and location data from these devices. Liu, Ziburis, and Sun made similar plans to install surveillance equipment at the residences and on the vehicles of two other dissidents. Liu and Ziburis planned to gain access to one such residence by posing as a member of an international sports committee.
Liu, Ziburis, and Sun also planned to interview the dissidents in mock media sessions, using the cover of Liu's purported media organization. Sun provided outlines for these fake interviews and designed questions to elicit answers that were intended to humiliate or discredit the dissidents. Liu, Ziburis, and Sun intended that audio or video clips of these statements could be used in PRC propaganda materials targeting the dissidents.
One of Liu's co-conspirators (Co-conspirator) retained Taylor to obtain confidential and sensitive personal identification information regarding multiple PRC dissidents residing in the United States, including passport information, passport photos, flight records, and immigration records. In turn, Taylor tasked two DHS law enforcement officers, including Miller, to obtain these records. Miller and the other DHS agent obtained the information from a restricted federal law enforcement database and improperly provided the records to Taylor, who then passed the information to the Co-conspirator. Liu, Ziburis, and Sun used this information to target and harass the PRC dissidents, while acting on behalf of the PRC government.
Later, the Co-conspirator, acting at the direction of law enforcement, called Taylor and claimed that he had received a subpoena from the Department of Justice seeking the Co-conspirator's communications with Taylor. Taylor directed the Co-conspirator to withhold such information from the government. Miller and Taylor procured and disseminated sensitive and confidential information from a restricted federal law enforcement database regarding U.S.-based dissidents from the PRC. This improperly provided information was used by Liu, Ziburis, and Sun in the transnational repression scheme targeting these very dissidents.
When FBI special agents confronted Miller and Taylor about their roles in improperly disseminating confidential and sensitive law enforcement information, Miller and Taylor both lied about their past conduct. Additionally, Miller deleted text messages with Taylor from his phone while being interviewed by the FBI, and Taylor instructed a co-conspirator to withhold evidence from the government.
When interviewed by FBI special agents, Taylor falsely claimed that he had obtained the records in question from a friend who was using the "Black Dark Web"—likely a reference to the "Dark Web."
When FBI special agents interviewed Miller, he initially claimed to be in sporadic contact with Taylor, but that the two did not discuss work matters since Taylor's retirement to become a private investigator. After agents admonished Miller to be honest, Miller admitted that Taylor had provided him names to run through law enforcement databases but claimed that the names were not in his phone, which he repeatedly consulted and referred to during the interview. FBI special agents then asked Miller for consent to search the phone. Miller granted consent and ultimately admitted that he had run the queries for Taylor and sent the results to Taylor via text message, and that Taylor had provided a gift card in return.
Following the interview, FBI special agents began to search Miller's phone but were unable to find the text messages between Miller and Taylor that Miller had referred to during the interview. Agents then called Miller to ask whether the text messages were still in the phone. He confirmed that they were under the name "Derrick" and expressed surprise that the agents could not find them. After FBI agents reminded Miller that it is a crime to lie to federal law enforcement officers, Miller admitted that he had deleted the text chain with Taylor during the interview earlier that day and that he had fabricated all earlier statements about the text chain, including whether the chain included the names requested by Taylor.
The charges in the indictment are allegations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty….
The FBI has created a website for victims to report efforts by foreign governments to stalk, intimidate, or assault people in the United States. If you believe that you are or have been a victim of transnational repression, please visit https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/counterintelligence/transnational-repression.
The government's case is being handled by the Office's National Security and Cybercrime Section. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Alexander A. Solomon and Emily J. Dean are prosecuting the case with assistance provided by Trial Attorney Scott Claffee of the National Security Division's Counterintelligence and Export Control Section, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher D. Grigg of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kimberly Svendsen of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Minnesota….