August, 31, 2022
The Honorable Joseph R. Biden Jr. President of the United States The White House 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW Washington, D.C. 20500
The Honorable Dick Durbin, Chairman Committee on the Judiciary United States Senate 711 Hart Senate Office Building Washington, D.C. 20510
The Honorable Chuck Grassley, Ranking Member Committee on the Judiciary United States Senate 135 Hart Senate Office Building Washington, D.C. 20510
Dear President Biden, Chairman Durbin, and Ranking Member Grassley:
We are board and staff members of API Middle Tennessee, an Asian and Pacific Islander advocacy nonprofit based in Nashville, Tennessee. The principal purpose of our organization is to work towards racial justice by building API community, lifting API voices, and celebrating API identities in Middle Tennessee.
We are writing to convey our deep concerns about the nomination of Casey T. Arrowood to be United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee. Our reservations are primarily based on last year’s overzealous prosecution of Professor Anming Hu of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Professor Hu’s case garnered significant media attention because it was the first to go to trial within the purview of the Department of Justice’s so-called “China Initiative.” The case received further attention when it was revealed at the June 2021 trial that the investigation, surveillance, and prosecution were based on flimsy and even falsified evidence. Thankfully, Professor Hu has since been vindicated through both a jury mistrial and an acquittal upon retrial in September 2021 from U.S. District Judge Thomas A. Varlan. Although an absolute miscarriage of justice was ultimately avoided in this case, Professor Hu and his family have suffered reputational, financial, and emotional damage throughout this multiyear ordeal.
Federal prosecutors and law enforcement agents wield immense power and authority. They must take pains to ensure that investigations and prosecutions are conducted based on evidence and integrity. Prosecutors, in particular, are held to heightened ethical standards due to their public responsibilities and their duty to serve the public interest. This includes “pursuing appropriate criminal charges of appropriate severity, and by exercising discretion to not pursue criminal charges in appropriate circumstances.” In executing their functions, prosecutors should respect the constitutional rights of all parties. They should not be motivated by improper bias or political or personal considerations such as career advancement when exercising prosecutorial discretion. If their conduct fails to meet basic standards, they do a disservice to defendants and risk undermining the public’s confidence in institutions and due process.
The DOJ’s China Initiative was launched in November 2018 under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The stated purpose was to counter economic espionage. Despite accusations of spying and theft of trade secrets, most of the charges of academics have been for wire fraud or false statements. While the program claimed to be free from racial biases, an MIT analysis of China Initiative cases revealed that 90 percent of defendants have been of Chinese descent. Although protecting our national security is of utmost importance, prosecutions must be based on facts and evidence. In the words of Representative Judy Chu, Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, “Instead of the normal process of beginning with a crime and searching for a suspect, the FBI has, through its China Initiative, started with racially profiled suspects and searched for a crime.”
In the case of Anming Hu, the record reflects that the lead FBI agent initiated his probe based on a Google translation of a Chinese website. Despite nearly two years of secret surveillance of Professor Hu and his son, the government failed to find any evidence of espionage. Rather than re-evaluating the strength of their case, the government, including Assistant U.S. Attorney Casey Arrowood, decided to prosecute Professor Hu for alleged grant fraud. At trial, the lead FBI agent testified that he met with UT Knoxville administrators and misled them to believe Professor Hu had connections to the Chinese military, which resulted in Professor Hu’s termination. In closing arguments, Arrowood argued that Hu “intentionally hid his ties to China to further his career.” However, jurors could not reach a verdict and the court declared a mistrial. Rather than dismissing a case built upon insinuation and falsified evidence, Casey Arrowood’s office chose to retry Professor Hu in what appeared to have been an attempt to justify its lengthy and expensive investigation.
The prosecution of Hu’s case raised concerns of racial profiling, academic freedom, and the criminalization of routine research collaboration. In the end, U.S. District Judge Varlan acquitted Professor Hu of all charges, noting that “even viewing all the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, no rational jury could conclude that defendant acted with a scheme to defraud NASA[.]”
While we commend the ultimate result in Professor Hu’s case, as well as the ending of the DOJ’s China Initiative program in February 2022, we have reservations over the potential elevation of Assistant U.S. Attorney Casey Arrowood. The U.S. Attorney is a powerful position which impacts the lives of all individuals in the particular district. Prosecutorial discretion must be exercised to ensure the proper use of finite resources and that prosecutions are in the public interest rather than in the single-minded pursuit of winning cases or achieving convictions. While we are admittedly not familiar with the entire body of Casey Arrowood’s work, the overreach and misjudgment involved in Professor Hu’s case give us great pause regarding the impartial and fair administration of justice. We are confident that there are other qualified candidates for U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee who would help restore, and not risk undermining, the public’s faith in institutions and equal justice.
API Middle Tennessee is dedicated to working toward a community that is safe and welcoming for all individuals. We raise concerns about Professor Hu’s overzealous prosecution and Casey Arrowood’s potential promotion precisely because of the painful history of the targeting of Asians in our nation’s past and present. API individuals have been viewed with suspicion and as perpetual foreigners from the Page Act of 1875 to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II to the recent rise in anti-Asian racism and attacks during COVID-19. The targeting of API scientists and academics is another difficult chapter in this history.
Based on the public interest and the essential need for continued faith in our institutions and our democracy, we respectfully ask that the President reconsider the nomination of Casey Arrowood for U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of Tennessee. Barring that, we ask that the Senate Judiciary Committee seriously reflect upon Arrowood’s suitability for this important role. Targeting individuals based on race or national origin must not be acceptable or rewarded.
Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to voice our concerns about Mr. Arrowood’s nomination. Please do not hesitate to reach out if you have any questions.
On behalf of API Middle Tennessee,
Download a PDF version of this statement here.
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