Kansas researcher jailed in China case

KANSAS CITY, Kansas (AP) — A former researcher accused of hiding work he did in China while at the University of Kansas was sentenced Wednesday to serve time by a federal judge who said his actions did not warrant jail time. . .

Feng “Franklin” Tao was initially convicted in April on four counts, including three counts of wire fraud. But U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson quashed the wire fraud charges in September and upheld the conviction for perjury.

Tao didn’t say on the form he filled out for Kansas in 2019 that he was included in the Chinese Changjiang Professorship talent program. He traveled to China to set up a laboratory and recruit staff for Fuzhou University, while informing the Kansas authorities that he was in Germany.

Federal prosecutors alleged that Tao deceived the University of Kansas, the US Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation by lying about work he did for Fuzhou University in China. The university and the federal agencies that gave Tao grants for research projects claimed that his actions had cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In announcing the verdict, Robinson said that during the trial, prosecutors did not provide evidence that Tao received any money for his work in China, which is required for a conviction for wire fraud.

She said that when the lawsuit began, she expected to hear evidence that Tao’s deception had resulted in financial losses and that he had shared important research with Chinese officials at the expense of US taxpayers and the three institutions.

Rather, the evidence showed that Tao continued his duties at the University of Kansas while in China, working 70-hour weeks and encouraging his students in Kansas to do the same. And she noted that he is engaged in fundamental research that is freely distributed in the scientific community.

“This is not a case of espionage… If it was, they provided absolutely no evidence of what was going on,” Robinson said. “Trust me, if this was what happened, today would be a very different verdict. ”

Tao’s lawyer Peter Seidenberg said he would appeal Tao’s remaining sentence.

“Doctor. Tao is extremely relieved that Judge Robinson agreed that the sentence to serve was appropriate,” Seidenberg said. “We were also pleased to hear the judge again say that neither the government nor the KU had been deceived or harmed and that Dr. Tao had done all the work required of him to the full satisfaction of those organizations.”

Tao served a week in jail after his arrest in 2018 and has since worn electronic surveillance equipment, although his travel has since been restricted. His lawyers said the case ruined his reputation, his family’s financial stability, and his distinguished career.

Tao refused to speak during or after the hearing as he rallied with supporters outside a federal courthouse in Kansas City, Kansas. But his wife, Hong Peng, said she was grateful for the support their family received during the long run.

“This prosecution ruined Franklin’s life,” she said. “He wants to get his reputation back. It turned our lives upside down.”

Prosecutor Adam Berry said in court on Wednesday that Tao’s actions merit jail time as institutions lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in research money because of his deception. He said the verdict would also serve as a deterrent to other researchers who feel they are not being honest or transparent in their research activities.

The US Attorney’s Office in Kansas declined to comment.

Tao no longer works at the University of Kansas, a school spokeswoman said Friday.

Robinson said Tao would not be locked in his home during his supervised release and would not have to wear an ankle monitor, noting that he had no criminal record and had not violated the terms of his detention since his arrest. She didn’t impose a fine.

The case against Tao was part of the US Justice Department’s China Initiative, a program launched in 2018 to crack down on attempts to transfer original ideas and intellectual property from US universities to Chinese government agencies. The department closed the program amid public criticism and several unsuccessful prosecutions.

Gisela Perez Kusakawa, executive director of the Asian American Scholars Forum, said the Tao case has raised concerns among Asian American researchers that they will be targeted, especially in an age of growing prejudice against them.

She said the disclosure form Tao was convicted of filling out incorrectly is vague and that there should be a system to allow researchers to correct such errors rather than subject them to federal prosecution.

“We want the public to know that Asian American scientists are contributing to the development of this country,” Kusakawa said. “These are exactly the people that this district needs now to continue research.”

Tao was born in China and moved to the US in 2002. He received his PhD from Princeton University and worked at UC Berkeley and Notre Dame until August 2014, when he was hired as a tenured assistant professor at New York University. Kansas Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis. The center conducts research in the field of sustainable technologies for the conservation of natural resources and energy.

Copyright 2023 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more visit KMUW | NPR for Wichita.

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