Jury finds University of Kansas chemical engineer guilty of hiding ties to China

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Franklin Tao’s trial took place at the Robert J. Cole Federal Courthouse in Kansas City.Credit: Michael Rosebrock/Alamy

Feng “Franklin” Tao, a chemical engineer from the University of Kansas (KU), accused of hiding ties to a Chinese university, was convicted of wire fraud and making false statements to the US government. On April 7, a jury in the U.S. District Court in Kansas found that Tao, currently on unpaid leave from Lawrence-based KU, committed research fraud by failing to notify his employer and federal funding agencies. of an alleged professorial appointment in China.

The closely watched case is the latest legal action against a scientist arrested under the China Initiative – a controversial US program launched in 2018 by the administration of former President Donald Trump to protect US institutions from corruption. economic espionage. Based on an internal investigation, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) announced in February that it was ending the program following accusations that the initiative was racist. The DoJ said it did not find evidence of radical bias, but acknowledged the initiative could have been seen as fueling a narrative of intolerance.

In a statement sent to NatureTao’s attorney, Peter Zeidenberg, said he hoped the verdict would be overturned. He noted that the judge had ordered a briefing on the government’s evidence and whether anyone had actually been defrauded, and that she had not set a sentencing date. “While we are deeply disappointed with the jury’s verdict, we believe it was so clearly against the weight of the evidence that we are confident it will not stand,” Zeidenberg wrote.

A DoJ press release says Tao could face decades in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000 for each violation.

A federal affair

Tao, who was first arrested in 2019, would be the first scientist charged under the China Initiative. DoJ prosecutors said he planned to defraud KU and US federal agencies by accepting a position at Fuzhou University in China. Tao did not report the alleged employment to the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, which funded his research at KU.

The prosecution’s main evidence included unsigned contracts from Fuzhou University that the FBI found in Tao’s email account, as well as emails suggesting he had tried to recruit students at the university. Chinese university and requests to Fuzhou to buy equipment for its laboratory. the. Tao told the New Yorker that he had considered moving to Fuzhou University, but decided against it.

Tao’s defense team argued that the evidence came from an unreliable source: one of Tao’s former research associates, Humin Liu. Emails appeared to show Liu trying to extort $300,000 from Tao and accusing him of damaging his career prospects before reporting him to KU and the FBI as a “tech spy”. Liu submitted the charges under false names and apparently hacked into Tao’s email account to obtain the contracts.

Zeidenberg disputed evidence suggesting that Tao was ever employed at Fuzhou University. The charges, he said, were minor administrative errors that had been exaggerated by federal investigators. He said there was no evidence that KU or anyone else was hurt. “Because it was about China, the government made it a federal matter,” he told the court, according to AP News.

An uncertain future

The defense team called only two witnesses: Tao’s wife and his pastor. Tao himself never spoke. The trial lasted two weeks and the jury deliberated for more than a day before reaching a verdict. They found Tao guilty of three out of six counts of wire fraud and one out of two counts of misrepresentation.

“When I heard the news, I was surprised, I was disappointed, and I was confused about what this means for the future,” says Jenny Lee, a social scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, which published a 2021 investigation showing that American scientists from The Chinese Origin feared surveillance following the launch of the China Initiative. “I really expected the case would have been dropped a while ago.”

Tao is one of dozens of Chinese-born scientists to be indicted for his ties to China. A December 2021 analysis of MIT Technology Review found that of the 77 cases listed on the DoJ’s China Initiative website at the time, only 19 involved economic espionage and the rest involved research integrity issues, such as proper disclosure foreign funding on grant applications. Most of the scientists were acquitted or the charges were dropped.

Among them is Gang Chen, a mechanical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge who was arrested in 2021 on similar charges of covering up ties to China. The DoJ dropped the charges against Chen in January this year. For Chen, Tao’s case suggests that the US government applies a different standard for the conduct of research to Chinese-born scientists. “Most people wouldn’t tell their employer they’re looking for a new job — it’s not a crime,” he says.

Chen adds that the government’s actions create a “chilling effect” on the willingness of scientists and international students to come to the United States. “The United States is built on talent. If talent is leaving and not coming, how does that contribute to national security? ” he says. And although MIT took him in after his charges were dropped, Chen says he and his family still live in fear. “You can’t get rid of this fear, you are afraid of being watched every day.”

In a February 24 speech, US Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew Olsen said that until the China Initiative ends, the US government will continue to investigate cases of espionage and fraud as part of a new plan called the Nation State Threat Strategy. This new initiative includes China, as well as several other “hostile” nations, including Iran and Russia. Olsen added that the DoJ will continue to support the cases he is currently pursuing.

Pending cases

Critics of the China Initiative say President Joe Biden’s administration’s decision to end the policy should include a review, rather than prosecution, of ongoing cases. The decision to pursue Tao’s case — and his sentencing — is disheartening, Lee says. “It certainly does not reassure the Chinese-American scientific community that the China Initiative in its current form will come to an end, even if they drop the label.”

Lee points out that U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson, who is trying Tao’s case, has taken steps to steer the case away from the China Initiative, barring testimony from either side that would suggest Tao was involved in espionage. However, Lee says, by focusing solely on Tao’s alleged crimes, the DoJ has also moved away from accusations of racial bias related to the initiative and the real reasons why Tao was investigated in first place. A DoJ spokesperson declined to comment. Nature.

Several other cases are due for trial later this year, and the Chinese-American academic community will be watching them closely, said Haipei Shue, president of the nonprofit United Chinese Americans in Washington DC. “We are convinced that this is a profiling of the country of origin,” he says.

Shue also worries that the government’s goal of prosecuting cases like Tao’s as criminal rather than administrative is to deter Chinese espionage rather than punish a crime. He quotes a Chinese proverb: “Kill a chicken to scare the monkey.” If so, I don’t have the words to describe it. It looks very medieval to me.

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