Federal fraud indictment: KU professor secretly worked for Chinese university

A University of Kansas associate professor on Wednesday was indicted on federal charges alleging he concealed he worked for a Chinese university while doing U.S. government-funded research.

Feng “Franklin” Tao, 47, of Lawrence, who taught chemical engineering and chemistry at KU’s Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis, is charged with one count of wire fraud and three counts of program fraud.

If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in federal prison and a fine up to $250,000 on the wire fraud count, and up to 10 years and a fine up to $250,000 on each of the program fraud counts.

“Tao is alleged to have defrauded the US 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,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers said in a statement. “Any potential conflicts of commitment by a researcher must be disclosed as required by law and university policies.”

The Kansas Board of Regents requires faculty and staff of its universities to file a conflict of interest report when they are hired and every year afterward for as long as they are employed.

According to court documents, Tao “knowingly and intentionally submitted to the University false statements concerning his lack of a conflict of interest.”

The indictment alleges that Tao “fraudulently received” more than $37,000 in salary paid for by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.

“We take these allegations very seriously,” KU Chancellor Douglas A. Girod said in a statement. “We learned of this potential criminal activity this spring, and we reported it to authorities and have cooperated with the ongoing investigation.”

He said Tao has been placed on paid administrative leave. Since the matter deals with personnel and is an ongoing criminal investigation, Girod said he could not share additional details. But he said, “We remain vigilant in our own internal efforts to maintain the integrity and security of our research, including the research we undertake on behalf of federal research granting agencies and, ultimately, U.S. taxpayers.”

In August 2014 Tao began work at the KU center, which researches sustainable technology to conserve natural resources and energy.

According to the federal indictment, in May 2018 Tao signed a five-year contract with Fuzhou University in China as a Changjiang Scholar Distinguished Professor and full-time employee.

During that same time Tao was conducting research at KU that was funded through two U.S. Department of Energy contracts and four National Science Foundation contracts, the indictment says.

Last year, a Chinese national who was a research professor at Kansas State University was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for stealing valuable American rice seeds — a trade secret — that can be used to treat gastrointestinal disease, antibiotic-associated diarrhea, hepatic disease, osteoporosis and inflammatory bowel disease.

Weiqiang Zhang, who was living legally in the U.S. at the time of his arrest, had attempted to pass the rice seed to visiting researchers so they could take them back to China.

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Mará has written on all things education for The Star for 20 years, including issues of school safety, teen suicide, universal pre-K programs, college costs, campus protests and university branding.