A federal judge sentenced former University of Kansas (KU) chemist Feng “Franklin” Tao on Jan. 18 to time served and 2 years’ supervised release for making false statements about undisclosed ties to a research university in China. “Dr. Tao is immensely relieved,” his defense attorney, Peter R. Zeidenberg, says in an emailed statement.
In August 2019, federal agents arrested Tao, saying that he had begun working for China’s Fuzhou University without disclosing this potential conflict of interest to his employers at KU or to the US agencies that supported his research: the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Tao stood trial last March in Kansas City, Kansas, under the China Initiative. Intended to target economic espionage, the controversial program of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) has since been revamped, after the DOJ acknowledged that it harmed Asian American communities. In April, a jury found Tao guilty of three counts of wire fraud and one count of making false statements.
In September, US District Judge Julie A. Robinson, who oversaw Tao’s trial, acquitted him of the wire fraud counts. Robinson found that the evidence was insufficient to support the three convictions. Federal prosecutors challenged Robinson’s decision, but that appeal was dismissed by the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.
Federal prosecutors had recommended “a sentence of 30 months in prison followed by one year of supervised release and a $100,000 fine” for the false statement conviction, according to documents filed with the court before the hearing.Defense attorneys had asked for a sentence of time served. In documents submitted to the court, the defense pointed to the significant financial and psychological hardships endured by Tao and his family. He is no longer employed by KU, according to a spokesperson from the university. The defense submitted more than a dozen letters from researchers in support of Tao for the court’s consideration.
Robinson sentenced Tao to time served and imposed no restitution or fines, according to a court transcript of the proceeding. She found that Tao had been “deceptive” in his disclosures to KU but that no espionage had occurred. “This is not a case where there was any evidence that Dr. Tao stole anything from KU, NSF, DOE, or the American taxpayers,” she said. Zeidenberg said the defense is “gratified” to hear Robinson reiterate that the case was never about espionage and that “all the work Dr. Tao did was fundamental research meant for publication.” Nevertheless, Tao plans to appeal the conviction.
This article was updated on Jan. 19, 2023, to add information from the judge's statement, move Tao's reaction to the verdict earlier in the article, include more information from Tao's lawyer, and add a quotation from the judge to the subhead.