Former KU researcher sentenced to time served in China-related case
photo by: University of Kansas
Updated at 3:48 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — A former researcher who was accused of hiding work he did in China while employed by the University of Kansas was sentenced Wednesday to time served by a federal judge who said his action did not warrant a prison sentence.
Feng “Franklin” Tao was originally convicted in April on four counts, including three counts of wire fraud. But U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson in September threw out the wire fraud convictions and let the false statement conviction stand.
Tao did not disclose on a form he filled out for Kansas in 2019 that he was named to a Chinese talent program, the Changjiang Professorship. He traveled to China to set up a laboratory and recruit staff for Fuzhou University, while telling Kansas officials that he was in Germany.
Federal prosecutors argued that Tao defrauded the University of Kansas, the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation by lying about work he was doing for Fuzhou University in China. KU and the federal agencies, which awarded Tao grants for research projects, contended his actions cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In announcing the sentence, Robinson said prosecutors had presented no evidence during the trial that Tao received any money for his work in China, which is required for a wire fraud conviction.
She said when the trial started, she expected to hear evidence that Tao’s deceptions caused financial loss and that he shared important research with Chinese officials at the expense of U.S. taxpayers and the three institutions.
Rather, the evidence showed that Tao continued fulfilling his duties to the University of Kansas while in China by working 70-hour weeks and pushing his students at Kansas to do the same. And she noted he was doing fundamental research that is freely shared across the scientific community.
“This is not an espionage case … If it was, they presented absolutely no evidence that was going on,” Robinson said. “Believe me, if that was what was going on, it would have been a much different sentence today.”
Tao’s attorney, Peter Zeidenberg, said he will appeal Tao’s remaining conviction.
“Dr. Tao is immensely relieved that Judge Robinson agreed that a sentence of time-served was appropriate,” Zeidenberg said. “We were also gratified to hear the judge say, once again, that neither the government nor KU was defrauded or harmed, and that Dr. Tao did all of the work required of him to the complete satisfaction of these entities.”
Tao served a week in prison after his arrest in 2018 and has worn an electronic monitoring device while having his travel restricted since then. His attorneys said the case destroyed his reputation, his family’s financial stability and his distinguished career.
Tao declined to speak during the hearing or afterward as he gathered with supporters outside the federal courthouse in Kansas City, Kansas. But his wife, Hong Peng, said she was grateful for the support their family received during the lengthy case.
“This prosecution has destroyed Franklin’s life,” she said. “He wants his reputation back. This has turned our lives upside down.”
Prosecutor Adam Barry said in court Wednesday that Tao’s actions warranted a prison sentence because the institutions lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in research money due to his deception. He said a sentence also would provide a deterrent for other researchers who consider not being honest and transparent about their research activities.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Kansas declined to comment.
Tao no longer works for the University of Kansas, a school spokeswoman said Friday.
Robinson said Tao will not be confined to his home during his supervised release and will not have to wear an ankle monitor, noting that he had no prior criminal record and has not violated the terms of his confinement since his arrest. She did not impose a fine.
The case against Tao was part of the U.S. Justice Department’s China Initiative, a program started in 2018 to crack down on efforts to transfer original ideas and intellectual property from U.S. universities to Chinese government institutions. The department ended the program amid public criticism and several failed prosecutions.
Gisela Perez Kusakawa, executive director of the Asian American Scholar Forum, said Tao’s case raised concerns among Asian American researchers that they would be targeted, particularly in an era of increasing bias against them.
She said the disclosure form that Tao was convicted of filling out improperly is vague and that there should be a system to allow researchers to fix such mistakes, rather than subjecting them to federal prosecution.
“We want the public to know that Asian American scientists are contributing to this country,” Kusakawa said. “They are the very people this county needs right now for the research to continue to advance.”
Tao was born in China and moved to the U.S. in 2002. He earned his doctorate from Princeton University and worked at the University of California-Berkeley and Notre Dame before August 2014, when he was hired as a tenured associate professor at the University of Kansas’ Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis. The center conducts research on sustainable technology to conserve natural resources and energy.