Former Canadian Space Agency engineer acquitted on charge of acting for Chinese firm

Former Canadian Space Agency engineer acquitted on charge of acting for Chinese firm © Provided by The Canadian Press

LONGUEUIL, Que. — A former Canadian Space Agency engineer was acquitted Friday on a breach of trust charge over his dealings with a Chinese aerospace company while in the federal agency’s employ.

Wanping Zheng, 63, expressed relief after the ruling by Quebec court Judge Marc-Antoine Carette in Longueuil, Que., south of Montreal.

Zheng, a resident of the Montreal suburb of Brossard, Que., was accused of using his position to act on behalf of Chinese aerospace company Spacety.

Carette read his ruling aloud in court, saying that while Zheng’s actions certainly warranted disciplinary measures, the Crown failed to prove he committed a crime.

“It is clear that Mr. Zheng made many errors of judgment, his actions clearly constitute many disciplinary faults,” Carette said. But as to whether Zheng’s behaviour constituted criminal negligence or a “marked departure” from the standard expected of someone in his position, Carette said the court had reasonable doubts.

The Crown alleged that Zheng had acted as a middle man for the Chinese firm by contacting two Canadian space companies to do business with it. The alleged infractions took place between July 2018 and May 2019.

Notably, he contacted Ewan Reid, CEO of Mission Control Space Services, to discuss the construction of a satellite ground station in Iceland on behalf of Spacety. Reid had close ties to the Nordic island country.

During the discussions, it became clear to Reid there wasn’t much work for his company and that Zheng was more interested in his ties to Iceland. He told the court he had reservations about offending Zheng, a high-ranking engineer with the space agency, a key client of his company.

Zheng also contacted Kepler Communications, a Canadian satellite firm about a business opportunity with Spacety involving the building and launching of 50 satellites.

He did not disclose his actions to the space agency, where he was employed for 25 years. The court heard that the federal agency required Zheng to disclose and document all his contacts.

As well, officials at the agency had highlighted Zheng’s difficulty with the notion of a conflict of interest. They said they had to brief him repeatedly about being careful about his interactions.

Zheng took a leave of absence in December 2018 after the CSA opened an internal probe into his behaviour. He left the CSA altogether in September 2019. In the days that followed his exit, the agency contacted the RCMP, who charged him in 2021.

He did not testify at the trial, but the Crown included an interview Zheng gave to police officers in 2021 after his arrest during which he defended his actions. He said he had only wanted to help the two Canadian companies by acting as an intermediary and putting them in contact with the Chinese firm. He acknowledged, however, that his actions went too far.

The court heard that Zheng did not ask for or receive compensation by Spacety when he approached the Canadian companies. He also did not share any Canadian Space Agency information, a fact the judge highlighted as notable.

One month after he left the CSA, he sought out employment and was hired by Spacety to set up operations in Luxembourg.

Zheng did not comment after Friday’s ruling, but his lawyer spoke briefly to reporters.

“I’m very pleased for Mr. Zheng, it was very stressful for him, I don’t think he did anything criminal and the judge said so,” defence lawyer Andrew Barbacki said.

Prosecutor Marc Cigana said his office will study the ruling before it decides whether to appeal.

“If we thought it was an error in judgment, we wouldn’t have charged him criminally,” Cigana said.

Source: Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press