Judge junks major convictions against Kansas researcher accused of secret China work

Feng “Franklin” Tao, a professor at the University of Kansas, appears in an undated photo provided by the school. University of Kansas/Kelsey Kimberlin/Handout via REUTERS
  • U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson in Kansas City, Kansas, ruled on Tuesday that there was “no evidence” to convict University of Kansas chemical engineering professor Feng "Franklin" Tao on defrauding the university and two agencies that funded his research.  
  • In April, Tao was convicted by a jury in the same court of not disclosing his affiliation with Fuzhou University in China to the University of Kansas, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation after he allegedly claimed he had no conflicts of interest. 
  • According to prosecutors, Tao signed up to be a full-time employee with Fuzhou University while he was supposed to be working on renewable energy projects at the University of Kansas in 2018.
  • In her recent ruling, Robinson pointed out that while Tao had been "deceptive" in concealing his activities in China, the prosecution did not establish any "evidence that Tao obtained money or property through the alleged scheme to defraud, as required under the wire fraud statute."
  • Tao's lawyer Peter Zeidenberg believes the new decision will put an end to the crackdown on suspected Chinese espionage within the U.S. academe pursued by the Justice Department during former President Donald Trump's administration.

A federal court cited insufficient evidence in junking a scientist’s most serious convictions for doing secret work in China while conducting U.S.-funded research.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson in Kansas City upheld only one count of making a false statement but ruled that there was not any evidence to convict University of Kansas chemical engineering professor Feng “Franklin” Tao on three wire fraud counts.

In April, Tao was convicted of not disclosing his affiliation with Fuzhou University in China to the University of Kansas and two agencies that granted his research funding by a jury in the same courtroom.

Prosecutors pointed out that Tao signed up to be a full-time employee with Fuzhou University in 2018 while he was supposed to be working on renewable energy projects at the University of Kansas.

The prosecutors accused Tao of defrauding the school, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation after he allegedly claimed he had no conflicts of interest in reports filed with the University of Kansas.

In her recent ruling, Robinson pointed out that while Tao had been “deceptive” in concealing his activities in China, the prosecution did not establish any “evidence that Tao obtained money or property through the alleged scheme to defraud, as required under the wire fraud statute.”

Tao’s case is just one of many legal actions pursued by the Justice Department during former President Donald Trump’s administration to crackdown on suspected Chinese influence in the U.S. academe.

The initiative was discontinued in February after it faced heavy criticism for halting important scientific research and blamed by civic groups for fueling bias against Asians.

The department, however, expressed commitment to pursuing the pending cases despite many of the prosecutions having already failed.

Tao’s lawyer Peter Zeidenberg believes the new decision will put an end to the crackdown. 

“This will hopefully drive a final stake through the heart of these China Initiative cases,” Zeidenberg was quoted as saying.

Chinese-born Tao, who immigrated to the U.S. in 2002, became a tenured associate professor at the University of Kansas’ Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis in 2014. 

Featured Image via University of Kansas (left), KMBC9 (right)

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