Associate Professor Feng “Franklin” Tao of the University of Kansas (KU) was indicted on August 21 on federal charges of hiding his full-time position for a Chinese university, while simultaneously receiving government funding at (KU).
He has been charged with one count of wire fraud and three counts of program fraud. If convicted of these charges, Tao faces up to 20 years in federal prison and a fine up to $250,000 on the wire fraud count, and up to 10 years and a fine up to $250,000 on each of the program fraud counts. Given his age of 47, this means Tao could be over 70 years old by the time he leaves prison if convicted.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Tao has been employed as an associate professor at KU’s Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis (CEBC) since August 2014, assisting in research on sustainable technology to conserve natural resources and energy.
A welcome message on the Feng (Franklin) Tao Group on KU’s website reads, “We are interested in synthesis, evaluation of catalytic performance, and in-situ/operando characterization of nanocatalysts for chemical and energy transformations. We focus on fundamental understanding of important catalytic reactions at molecular level.”
However, it is alleged that in May 2018 Tao signed an additional five-year contract with Fuzhou University in China. At this university, he was designated a Changjiang Scholar Distinguished Professor; though, it is not clear how Tao managed to distinguish himself while living in the U.S. This contract required him to be a full-time employee. This is despite the contract with KU and his federal funding from two U.S. Department of Energy contracts and four National Science Foundation contracts.
According to the DOJ, this constitutes fraud and a conflict of interest, as Tao never disclosed his professorship at another university.
“Kansas Board of Regents’ policy requires staff to file an annual conflict of interest report,” the DOJ explains. “In Tao’s reports to KU, he falsely claimed to have no conflicts of interest. The indictment alleges that he fraudulently received more than $37,000 in salary paid for by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.”
The University of Kansas was cooperative throughout the FBI’s investigation, assisting them by providing information on Tao.
According toKMBC News, KU’s Chancellor Douglas Girod released the following message to colleagues:
As has been publicly reported, one of our faculty members has been involved in an investigation of alleged criminal activity. He is accused of fraud related to his work at our Lawrence campus and in China.
We take these allegations very seriously. We learned of this potential criminal activity this spring, and we reported it to authorities and have cooperated with the ongoing investigation. Additionally, we have placed the faculty member on paid administrative leave. Given that this is a personnel matter and an ongoing criminal investigation, we are not able to share additional details.
He goes on to stress the importance of maintaining the collaborative nature within academia, especially collaborations involving the cooperation of other universities, national or foreign, including those from China.
“Tao is alleged to have defrauded the U.S. government by unlawfully receiving federal grant money at the same time that he was employed and paid by a Chinese research university — a fact that he hid from his university and federal agencies,” said Assistant Attorney General Demers for National Security. “Any potential conflicts of commitment by a researcher must be disclosed as required by law and university policies. The Department will continue to pursue any unlawful failure to do so.”
According to the South China Morning Post (SCMP), this most recent indictment will likely add to the concerns of US officials regarding the risks from “China to US universities,” as the Trump administration has been confronting China over “what Washington sees as the use of sometimes illicit methods for acquiring rapid technological advancement.” This would include stealing trade secrets or technological and/or scientific innovations.
China has denied such suggestions. However, amidst the ongoing trade war between the two countries, intelligence officials have been issuing more severe warnings regarding intellectual property theft and espionage, reports SCMP.
Tao is set to make his first appearance on Friday, August 23, 2019, in a federal court in Kansas City, Kansas.
A DOJ spokesperson has said that Tao has made no plea, so far.
The DOJ has reaffirmed that Tao is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty, and that the maximum potential sentences, in this case, are prescribed by Congress, but ultimately the length of time Tao would serve if convicted will be determined by the assigned judge.