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Sentence issued in military data case

Times Staff Writer

A Chinese-born engineer portrayed by a prosecutor as the hub in a family of spies was sentenced Monday to 24 years and five months in federal prison for conspiring to export U.S. military technology to China.

“I believe you betrayed the United States,” U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney told Chi Mak, 67, a former electrical engineer at an Anaheim-based firm that handled Navy contracts.

“I don’t know how much damage he did to us,” Carney said later, noting that the naturalized citizen acted illegally as an agent of the People’s Republic of China when he attempted to compromise sensitive technology used in the operation of U.S. warships.

Mak, a Downey resident, looked down and showed no emotion during sentencing. He told the court that he loved America and would never do anything to harm his adopted country.

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“I never intended to violate any law at all. I never intended to hurt this country,” Mak said. “I love this country. I still hope for justice.”

Mak was convicted in May of conspiracy to violate export control laws, attempting to violate export control laws, acting as an unregistered agent of China and lying to the FBI.

Monday’s sentencing in Santa Ana capped an 18-month investigation of Mak’s family that ended in October 2005 when he and four other family members were arrested by the FBI. They were charged in a scheme to illegally send the military information to China. The other four -- Mak’s wife, brother, sister-in-law and nephew -- have pleaded guilty and agreed to jail terms or probation.

Mak, who worked at Power Paragon Inc., was the “hub” of what Assistant U.S. Atty. Greg Staples on Monday called a family spy ring.

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Mak and the others, however, were not charged with espionage because the information they attempted to export to China was not classified.

Staples called Mak a traitor and had asked for a sentence six years longer than he received.

The ring was dismantled Oct. 28, 2005, when Mak’s brother and sister-in-law were arrested at Los Angeles International Airport before they could board a midnight flight to China with computer disks containing encrypted military-related information.

In a brief statement to the court, Mak, who has been jailed since his arrest more than two years ago, denied that he betrayed the U.S. or that he was a spy for China.

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“I have been living in the U.S. for almost 30 years. My career is here. My friends are here,” he said. “This is my country.”

But in a sharply worded argument for a longer sentence, Staples noted that the disks Mak attempted to send to China were encrypted, a clear sign that he knew it was illegal to export them.

“Why encrypt if it wasn’t going to hurt the U.S.,” he said.

The government’s case was built around three disks that prosecutors said Mak tried to export despite receiving training on export control laws. The information on them was unclassified.

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Two disks contained information about an electrically powered propulsion system for warships and a solid-state power switch for ships. The third disk contained a PowerPoint presentation on the future of power electronics. During the trial, witnesses testified that some materials Mak attempted to pass to China could be bought from the Web site of the American Society of Naval Engineers until the government put a stop to it.

It was a point that defense attorney Ronald O. Kaye hammered on Monday in trying to persuade Carney to sentence his client to 10 years. Information contained in one of the disks was discussed at an international conference attended by Chinese engineers and the FBI, Kaye said.

The case against Mak was unwarranted, and he has become a “symbol of the government’s cold war against the Chinese,” Kaye said.

After the court hearing, Kaye said Mak was “sentenced as a trophy rather than as a human being.” The defense offered numerous letters of praise and support from Mak’s fellow engineers and friends hoping for a shorter a sentence.

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Prosecutors had “waved the flag of patriotism” in front of the jury to obtain a conviction he said.

“We’ve shown that the technology that was the issue in this case would never present harm to the U.S.” if exported to China.

Mak told the court he saw nothing wrong with exchanging knowledge.

“Even now I enjoy helping people -- my colleagues, my friends, my customers. This is my nature,” he said.

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Mak will serve his sentence in a low-security federal prison. He was also fined $50,000.

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hgreza@latimes.com


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