By Mark Hosenball and Yeganeh Torbati
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. State Department employee with access to sensitive information was accused of failing to report contacts with Chinese foreign intelligence agents who provided her with gifts in exchange for diplomatic and economic information, federal prosecutors said on Wednesday.
Candace Claiborne, 60, was charged in a Washington federal court with obstruction of justice and making false statements to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Claiborne appeared before a magistrate judge with her lawyer, David Bos, but both declined to speak to reporters. Claiborne will remain confined to house arrest until an April 18 preliminary hearing.
A complaint says Claiborne was given tens of thousands of dollars in gifts and wire transfers by Chinese agents beginning in 2011 in exchange for information about U.S. economic policy in relation to China and other diplomatic matters.
Claiborne and a co-conspirator not identified in court papers received such items as beads, a sewing machine, slippers cash, tuition payments to a fashion school in China and an all-expenses paid vacation to Thailand, prosecutors allege.
"When a public servant is suspected of potential misconduct or federal crimes that violate the public trust, we vigorously investigate such claims," said State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
The charges against Claiborne were announced just ahead of an April 6-7 meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a time of heightened tensions between the world’s two largest economies over North Korea, the South China Sea, Taiwan and trade. Trump was critical of China during the 2016 presidential campaign.
U.S. officials have accused China of cyber hacking of U.S. government agencies and American companies in recent years.
Claiborne, 60, "allegedly failed to report her contacts with Chinese foreign intelligence agents who provided her with thousands of dollars of gifts and benefits,” said U.S. Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary McCord.
Claiborne has worked at the State Department since 1999, during which she served in a number of overseas post including embassies and consulates in Iraq, Sudan and China.
Claiborne was monitored under a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant, or FISA warrant, prosecutors said.
The charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for obstruction of justice and five years in prison for making false statements to the FBI.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball, Eric Beech, Arshad Mohammed, Yeganeh Torbati and Matt Spetalnick; Writing by Julia Edwards Ainsley; Editing by Grant McCool and Howard Goller)