Jury convicts former Kansas professor for concealing ties to China

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

In a press release, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that Feng “Franklin” Tao, 50, conducted federally funded research at KU while intentionally concealing his employment at a government-affiliated university in China. Tao, of Lawrence, Kansas, was found guilty on Thursday of three counts of wire fraud and one count of misrepresentation.

Court documents and trial evidence indicate 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 job guidelines required him to be a full-time employee of Fuzhou University,” the statement said.

“The Kansas Board of Regents (KBOR) has required faculty to file annual reports notifying any outside employment that has or may impact duties as a conflict of interest,” the DOJ said. Tao did not ask permission from KU before accepting the position, never informed the school after being employed by Fuzhou University, and lied to maintain secrecy, the statement noted.

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

While at the University of Kansas, Tao — who moved to the United States from China in 2002, according to the AP — worked on contract research with the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) and caused the university to submit claims for DOE and NSF grant expenses that amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to the release. Additionally, “Tao repeatedly certified electronic documents that he had read and understood the federal government and KU policies and had made all necessary disclosures.”

Tao could receive up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for the wire fraud count while facing sentences of up to 10 years and fines of up to $250,000 for each program fraud chief. Although Tao was convicted, the defense filed a motion to dismiss that U.S. District Court Judge Julie Robinson is considering, The Associated Press reported. She requested written submissions from the defense and prosecution on Monday as 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 the “Strategy to Counter Threats from Nation States” in February, saying the name “China Initiative” had negative connotations toward American scientists who have Chinese heritage, noted Science Insider.


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