US Department of State
An employee of the US Department of State has been charged over hiding contacts with Chinese intelligence agents - File photo REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

An employee of the US Department of State, who had access to sensitive information, has been accused of hiding her contacts with Chinese intelligence agents, the justice department said on Wednesday (29 March).

According to a federal complaint, Candace Marie Claiborne had top security clearance and was required to report any contact with people linked to foreign agencies. She also allegedly received tens of thousands of dollars in gifts in exchange for providing information to the foreign agents.

The 60-year-old – who joined the office in 1999 and served at a number of foreign missions, including Iraq, Sudan and China – had concealed her repeated contacts with two intelligence agents of the People's Republic of China (PRC), said an affidavit in support of the complaint and arrest warrant.

Claiborne is also accused of receiving almost $2,500 (£2,010) from a Chinese agent in 2011 in exchange for information about US-Sino Strategic Economic Dialogue.

The veteran employee was charged on Wednesday in a Washington federal court with "obstruction of justice and making false statements" to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

The charges against her were announced by Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary B. McCord for National Security, US Attorney Channing D. Phillips of the District of Columbia and Assistant Director in Charge Andrew W. Vale of the FBI's Washington Field Office.

"As a State Department employee with a Top Secret clearance, she received training and briefing about the need for caution and transparency.

"This case demonstrates that U.S. government employees will be held accountable for failing to honor the trust placed in them when they take on such sensitive assignments," Attorney Phillips said.

Claiborne, who was arrested on Tuesday, has pleaded not guilty. A preliminary hearing has been set for 18 April, the state department said in a statement.

If convicted, Claiborne would face almost 20 years of jail sentence for obstructing an official proceeding. Maximum sentence for making false statements to the FBI is five years.