The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kansas professor says FBI misled court in alleging hidden ties to Chinese government

(Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images)

A University of Kansas professor has accused the FBI of misleading a federal judge while seeking search warrants in a case charging the professor with failing to disclose his ties to a Chinese university and a Chinese government recruitment program.

A motion filed Monday by an attorney for Feng “Franklin” Tao, a U.S. resident born in China, alleges that Kansas City, Mo., FBI agent Stephen Lampe knowingly used false information from an informant to obtain warrants to search Tao’s emails, computers, home and office. The motion says Lampe deliberately withheld information that would undercut the informant’s credibility and the reliability of the evidence.

Tao is asking the court to throw out evidence obtained with the warrants. The case is scheduled to go to trial in October.

The FBI and Justice Department declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Kansas said the office’s response would be filed as part of the court case.

Read Tao’s motion to suppress the evidence

Both the FBI and Justice Department are facing criticism for their handling of cases involving Chinese and Chinese American academics accused of concealing ties to the Chinese government on research grant and visa applications.

Civil rights activists have said these prosecutions — a number of which have been dismissed in recent months — unfairly target ethnic Chinese scientists as part of a larger program aimed at stemming Chinese economic espionage and technology theft.

Tao, a chemical engineer who came to the United States in 2002 and was hired as a tenured professor by the University of Kansas in 2014, was charged two years ago with defrauding the federal government.

Prosecutors accused him of concealing that he was a full-time professor at China’s Fuzhou University and received money from a Chinese government talent recruitment program while simultaneously receiving U.S. grant funds to conduct research on renewable energy at the University of Kansas.

China’s talent programs, U.S. prosecutors alleged, are designed to recruit academics to bolster the country’s scientific knowledge and national security. The U.S. government views China as a major strategic competitor seeking to achieve economic dominance, often through coercive and illicit means.

“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,” John Demers, then the assistant attorney general for national security, said in August 2019, when Tao was first charged. “Any potential conflicts of commitment by a researcher must be disclosed as required by law and university policies.”

Tao’s case, his attorney alleges, largely relied on information provided by another Chinese researcher who sought to frame Tao as a Chinese “tech spy” in retaliation for what she saw as a snub by Tao — not giving her sufficient credit for her contributions to a scientific paper.

The researcher demanded Tao pay her $310,000 for her contribution, said Tao’s attorney, Peter Zeidenberg, a partner at Arent Fox. Citing emails provided by the prosecution to the defense, Zeidenberg said the researcher sent complaints about Tao to the university in multiple ways — anonymously, under her own name and by impersonating two other researchers working for Tao.

She created three fictitious email addresses to submit the complaints, Zeidenberg said, and occasionally slipped up, for instance signing an email purporting to be from one researcher with the name of another. In another case, she sent an email from a fake email address but signed it with her real name, he said.

U.S. drops cases against five researchers accused of hiding ties to Chinese military

Though the FBI knew about her subterfuge, Zeidenberg said, Lampe did not inform the court when applying for the warrant. The researcher, identified in Tao’s motion only as a “former international visiting scholar” and as a “government informant,” had admitted to the FBI that she impersonated others, the defense attorney said.

FBI Special Agent Jeffery Carlson interviewed the informant in July 2019, according to court records. Hours later, according to an email obtained by defense attorneys, she told the agent that “for the talk today, I have to admit that I lied on some of the items.” She wrote in the email that she had “reported [her accusations] using the names of others. . . . I am sorry for my fault.”

The motion accuses Lampe of concealing from the court that the researcher had admitted in writing to lying to the FBI about how she had obtained what she purported to be a copy of Tao’s unsigned contract with Fuzhou University. She confessed to hacking his email account, but the FBI did not disclose this in the original search warrant application even though Lampe knew at the time, Zeidenberg alleged.

Lampe also allegedly misled the court about the nature of the FBI’s sources, saying the bureau received information about Tao from the researcher and anonymous sources. “In reality the FBI knew that the anonymous reports came from [the researcher] as part of a scheme to bolster her other false reports,” Zeidenberg said.

“The FBI deliberately whitewashed and misrepresented her evidence” in applying for warrants in July and August 2019, Zeidenberg’s motion said. “Had the court been aware of the truth” it would not have found probable cause to issue the warrant, he said.

Tao is on administrative leave from the university without pay, Zeidenberg said.