SAN FRANCISCO — Officials involved in investigating a California family's alleged espionage for China apparently violated grand jury secrecy rules by telling a reporter details of plans to seek a new indictment in the case, a federal judge ruled this week.
Judge Cormac Carney concluded that defense lawyers were justified in their objection to a May 16 Washington Times story by William Gertz that said prosecutors were preparing to bring more serious charges against three related individuals, Chi Mak, Rebecca Chiu, and Tai Mak, who were charged initially with failing to register as agents of China.
"The information contained in Mr. Gertz's article clearly raises a prima facie violation," Judge Carney, who sits in Santa Ana, Calif., wrote in an order released Wednesday. The judge said the information in the Times account was attributed to "senior Justice Department officials who have approved the new charges."
On October 25, Chi Mak and his wife, Ms. Chiu, as well as Tai Mak and his wife and son, Fuk Li and Billy Yui Mak, were indicted for conspiracy to export defense technology to China. According to court records, the technology in question involved designs for systems to quiet sounds emitted from American warships. Several other new charges were filed, all essentially as predicted by Mr. Gertz's May 16 report.
By the time that article was published, a prosecutor on the case, Gregory Staples, had already said in open court that he expected a new indictment in the case, but the details of the additional charges were not widely known.
In his ruling, Judge Carney indicated that the Justice Department has begun an investigation into the apparent leak. He ordered the government to report by January 5 on the status of the leak probe and to describe the prosecution's efforts "to insure that no improper communications take place with Mr. Gertz, or any other member of the public."
The New York Sun reported last month that Judge Carney rejected a defense request to subpoena Mr. Gertz to testify at a pre-trial hearing.
Tai Mak and his wife, Ms. Li, were arrested at Los Angeles International Airport in October 2005 as they prepared to board a flight to Hong Kong. Authorities said the couple had in their luggage a CD-ROM containing details about the Navy propulsion systems. Prosecutors said the data came from Tai Mak's brother, Chi Mak, who worked at a defense contractor, Power Paragon.
All the defendants have pleaded not guilty.
Correction from November 27, 2006:
The government is the party a federal judge said appeared to have disclosed secret grand jury information in a case of alleged espionage for China. A headline on page 5 of the November 24–26 New York Sun incorrectly described those whom the judge identified as likely to be culpable for the leak.