University of Kansas (KU) chemistry professor Feng ‘Franklin’ Tao, who was arrested in 2019 under the US Department of Justice’s controversial ‘China Initiative’, was convicted of three wire fraud counts and making false statements by a federal jury on 7 April. He now faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 (£192,000) fine for wire fraud, on top of 10 years and a $250,000 fine for each of the programme fraud counts.
Tao has been a tenured associate professor at KU since 2014. He was accused of accepting a position at Fuzhou University in China in 2018 and failing to notify KU about the arrangement, as well as lying to conceal his employment outside of KU. In December 2018, Tao moved to China to work full-time at Fuzhou University, while falsely telling KU administrators that he was in Europe, according to the US Department of Justice (DOJ).
While working at KU, Tao conducted research under contracts between the university and the US Department of Energy (DOE) and National Science Foundation (NSF). As a result, KU submitted hundreds of thousands of dollars in reimbursement requests to both agencies for expenditures associated with the grants, the DOJ said. After a two-week trial, the jury convicted Tao on four counts and acquitted him of four other charges. No sentencing date has yet been set.
Tao’s case is the first of its kind to be tried since the US government ended its China Initiative in February, amid increased concerns that its activity was tantamount to racial profiling. The agency said its future investigations of academic integrity or research security cases will involve working with other agencies to assess the evidence and determine whether criminal prosecution is warranted or if civil or administrative remedies are more appropriate.
The China Initiative’s cancellation came after many of the criminal cases the DOJ prosecuted under the programme were dismissed, including those of Anming Hu – a nanotechnologist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville who was acquitted in September 2021 – and Gang Chen – the director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s nanoengineering laboratory who was arrested in early 2021.
A handful of criminal cases brought under the programme were still pending in US courts, including Tao’s, and his conviction suggests that the decision to terminate the China Initiative will have little effect on those cases.
GoFundMe raises over $650,000 for legal defence
Meanwhile, Tao’s wife, Hong Peng, has launched a GoFundMe to help finance his legal defence. The campaign had raised almost $650,000 from more than four thousand donors, as of 11 April. Its target is $1 million.
The GoFundMe page includes a statement from Anming Hu, Gang Chen and three other scientists who were prosecuted under the China Initiative and subsequently vindicated, saying: ‘Like Professor Tao, we were once prosecuted by our own government. The charges were either later dropped by the government or rejected by a judge because they were false. The nightmarish experiences ruined our lives and the lives of our families.’
Peng also writes that she had ‘hoped and expected that the jury would do the right thing and acquit on all counts. But the fight goes on.’ She adds that the DOE and NSF witnesses testified that the agencies were fully satisfied with all of the work completed under her husband’s grants, so there is no legal basis for any conviction. Tao’s lawyers are already preparing a motion to overturn his conviction, she says.