Community looks back at Richardson’s role in Wen Ho Lee Case
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s appointment this week as President-elect Barack Obama’s commerce secretary is being greeted with anger and disappointment by some who remember the former energy secretary’s role in the botched investigation and prosecution of scientist Dr. Wen Ho Lee.
In 1999, Richardson and several other Department of Energy officials publicly accused the Taiwanese-born Lee of stealing classified nuclear-related documents from the Los Alamos Laboratories.
Lee, who had been employed at Los Alamos for 21 years, was indicted and spent 278 days in solitary confinement. Meanwhile, the case became a national story as suspicions formed that Lee was performing espionage for the Chinese government.
In the face of insufficient evidence, Lee pled guilty to a substantially reduced charge and received a public apology from President Bill Clinton for his mistreatment at the hands of the federal government.
The future New Mexico governor came under fire for his role in the case, as allegations surfaced that it was Richardson who leaked damaging classified personal information about Lee in an apparent attempt to smear the 69-year-old doctor in the press. Lee eventually received a multimillion-dollar settlement from the federal government and several media outlets in 2006.
Richardson’s new appointment has drawn fierce criticism from members of the Asian American community, many of whom still blame the New Mexico governor for perpetuating a harmful image of Chinese Americans.
“Richardson inflamed the stereotype that Americans of Chinese descent are easily disloyal citizens of our country,” said Henry Der who was Executive Director of Chinese for Affirmative Action in the 1990s. Der called upon members of the Senate Commerce Committee to investigate Richardson’s conduct as secretary of energy during Richardson’s confirmation hearings.
For critics like Der, Richardson’s refusal to acknowledge his own misconduct during the scandal remains a bitter sticking point.
“[He] needs to… apologize for the grave, calculated mistakes and harm he perpetrated against Lee and our nation’s sense of justice,” Der said.
Guy Wong, a member of a group of Chinese Americans who supported Wen Ho Lee during his imprisonment, went further in his criticism of the former energy secretary.
“Bill Richardson is simply a ruthless opportunist,” said Wong, who circulated a petition urging President-elect Obama to deny Richardson any cabinet position prior to Tuesday’s announcement. Wong criticized Richardson and other government officials for being “willing to lie, not just to Dr. Lee, but also in open court, in order to gain advantage over an innocent and powerless man.”
That Richardson’s appointment comes at a time of unprecedented economic turmoil concerns Asian American business leaders like John Jin Lee, chairman of the Asian Business League of San Francisco.
“Mr. Richardson’s association with the well-documented mishandling of the Wen Ho Lee case at the very least raises the question as to his qualifications,” said Lee.
Shien Biau “S.B.” Woo, former lieutenant governor of Delaware and co-founder of the prominent 80-20 Initiative, an Asian American political organization, had a different view.
“I doubt if we want to burn our political capital opposing the appointment of Richardson,” Woo said, questioning the notion that the Wen Ho Lee case was an important issue to Asian Americans.
In lieu of opposing the appointment and risk angering the Hispanic community, Woo proffered that the Asian American community should work to increase its influence instead of focusing on negatives.
“The politic way of doing things has always been not to be concerned with what others are getting,” said Woo. “We have to be politically astute. Otherwise we’ll never succeed in enlarging our political clout.”