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Accused of fraud, Kansas researcher denies working for a Chinese university as he fights federal charge

Franklin Tao is an engineering professor at the University of Kansas

The University of Kansas in Lawrence. (Orlin Wagner/AP)
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Franklin Tao built a distinguished academic résumé in his journey to Lawrence, Kan. He received a doctorate in chemistry from Princeton University and then a postdoctoral fellowship with the University of California at Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He joined the faculty of the University of Notre Dame as an assistant professor before landing a tenured position five years ago at the University of Kansas as an associate professor of engineering.

But federal prosecutors say Tao kept a crucial piece of his résumé hidden from his employer. According to an indictment, Tao failed to disclose to the University of Kansas that he signed a five-year contract in 2018 that obligated him to work full time for Fuzhou University in China. The indictment, made public in August, charged Tao with one count of wire fraud and three counts of program fraud. It alleged that “Tao well knew” the Chinese contract posed a conflict of interest with his work at Kansas while he was conducting federally funded research.

This week, Tao’s attorneys argued the indictment should be dismissed without trial in a motion filed in federal court that offers a detailed defense of the professor’s actions. The central premise of the indictment, the attorneys wrote in their Sunday filing, was incorrect. “Dr. Tao never accepted a teaching position in China and, therefore, he had no obligation to make any disclosure to KU,” they wrote.

Tao, 48, who was born in China, moved to the United States in 2002 and is a permanent U.S. resident. His wife and children are U.S. citizens. His legal first name is Feng, but he goes by Franklin professionally. He is the latest Chinese-born researcher at a U.S. university to come under scrutiny as federal officials and universities tighten enforcement of rules on disclosure and conflict of interest.

Emory University fired two Chinese-born professors in May, charging they had failed to fully disclose foreign sources of their research funding and the extent of their work for institutions and universities in China. Those two professors, who were naturalized U.S. citizens, disputed the allegations.

Federal officials say they aim to protect the integrity of government-funded research at a time when China is pushing hard to acquire technological know-how and intellectual property from the United States. But critics say the crackdown has often gone too far, tarring honest academic professionals and raising fears of racial profiling.

Scrutiny of Chinese American scientists raises fears of ethnic profiling

On Tuesday, a senior FBI official addressed those concerns.

“I cannot overstate that ethnicity plays no role in our investigations,” John Brown, assistant director of the FBI counterintelligence division, told senators in a hearing on the security implications of Chinese talent recruiting. “Instead, we follow facts and evidence wherever they lead. We have never asked any university, company or other entity to profile people based on ethnicity, and we would be appalled if they did.”

Tao is affiliated with the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis at the University of Kansas, which focuses on sustainable technology to conserve natural resources and energy. He is on the chemical and petroleum engineering faculty, and his work has been funded by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.

The indictment put Tao in a precarious position with his employer.

“We take these allegations very seriously,” university Chancellor Douglas A. Girod wrote to the campus Aug. 21. “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.”

The university said Tuesday that Tao remains on paid leave.

The seven-page indictment alleges Tao signed a “Changjiang Scholar Distinguished Professor Employment Contract” on or about May 1, 2018, a deal prosecutors say is part of a talent-recruitment program of the Chinese government. The indictment charged that Tao omitted mention of the contract in a conflict-of-interest form he filed that September. Through that omission, the indictment alleged, Tao “knowingly and intentionally” submitted false statements that enabled him to defraud the university by continuing with his work at Kansas.

Tao’s attorneys say there was no signed contract, that he never worked at Fuzhou and that he did not have any conflicts as he fulfilled his duties in Lawrence without interruption. In fall 2018, they wrote, he taught chemical engineering thermodynamics three days a week to more than 90 students and held office hours as normal on Wednesday and Friday afternoons. “His Conflict of Interest form was completely accurate,” they wrote. Tao’s attorneys cited grand jury testimony indicating federal investigators did not have a copy of a signed contract.

The government investigation, according to Tao’s attorneys, stemmed from “a slew of fabricated tips” from a visiting scholar who was angry with Tao because she thought he did not give her enough credit as a co-author on certain research papers. She sought unsuccessfully to extort $300,000 from Tao, the defense attorneys wrote, threatening to accuse the professor of economic espionage if he refused to pay.

The defense attorneys said the indictment unjustifiably transformed “what is, at best, a garden-variety employment dispute” into a string of federal fraud allegations.

Peter R. Zeidenberg, one of the defense attorneys, who is based in Washington with the firm Arent Fox, declined to comment further on the case.

“Our office is evaluating the defense motion,” Jim Cross, public information officer for the U.S. attorney’s office in Kansas, said Tuesday. “We will be responding in court."