Jury convicts former Kansas professor of hiding ties to China

A federal jury found a former University of Kansas professor originally from China guilty of concealing his ties to the Chinese government.

In a press release, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that 50-year-old Feng “Franklin” Tao was conducting government-funded research at the KU while deliberately hiding his tenure at a government-affiliated university in China. Tao, of Lawrence, Kansas, was convicted Thursday on three counts of wire fraud and one count of misrepresentation.

Court documents and trial evidence state that Tao, a full-time professor at KU, accepted a position as Changjiang Scholar Distinguished Professor with China’s Fuzhou University in 2018, the DOJ said. “The guidelines of the position required that he be a full-time employee of Fuzhou University,” the press release said.

“The Kansas Board of Regents (KBOR) required faculty to file annual reports to provide information on any outside employment that impacted or could impact duties as a conflict of interest,” the DOJ said. Tao failed to get KU’s permission before taking the job, never notified the school after he was hired at Fuzhou University, and lied to keep them under wraps, the press release said.

“In December 2018, the defendant relocated to China to work full-time at Fuzhou University while falsely telling KU administrators he was in Europe,” according to the DOJ. While at Fuzhou University, Tao — a chemical engineer, according to Science Insider — recruited staff at the university and set up a lab, the Associated Press noted.

While at Kansas University, Tao — who the AP said had moved to the United States from China in 2002 — worked on research commissioned by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), prompting the university to file reimbursement requests to submit grant-associated expenses for the DOE and NSF, which totaled in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the press release said. In addition, “Tao repeatedly certified electronic documents demonstrating that he has read and understood the guidelines of the federal government and the KU and that he has made all necessary disclosures.”

Tao could face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine in the wire fraud case, while he also faces up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 for any program fraud. Although Tao was convicted, the defense filed a motion to dismiss, which US District Court Judge Julie Robinson is considering, the Associated Press reported. She requested written arguments from the defense and prosecutors on Monday while the trial continued.

Tao’s case stems from the China Initiative, which “was established in 2018 to crack down on trade secret theft and economic espionage,” the Associated Press reported.

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen renamed the initiative Strategy to Counter Nation-State Threats in February, saying the name “China Initiative” has negative connotations toward U.S. scientists of Chinese heritage, Science Insider noted.

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