On Sept. 19, a federal judge acquitted University of Kansas chemist Feng “Franklin” Tao of most of the counts against him for undisclosed ties to a university in China.
Tao stood trial earlier this year on allegations that he defrauded the University of Kansas, the US National Science Foundation, and the US Department of Energy when he failed to disclose his ties to Fuzhou University (FZU).
Federal prosecutors brought the charges against Tao under the Department of Justice’s China Initiative, a controversial program intended to prevent economic espionage amidst growing tensions with the Chinese government. In February, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen acknowledged concerns from the civil rights community that the initiative “fueled a narrative of intolerance and bias” and contributed to a “chilling atmosphere for scientists and scholars.” Though the DOJ announced that it would drop the name and revamp the initiative away from prosecuting researchers for inaccurate disclosures, Tao’s case proceeded to trial as scheduled. On April 7, a jury found Tao guilty of three counts of wire fraud and one count of making false statements.
Now, only the conviction for making false statements stands.
In her recent ruling, U.S. District Judge Julie A. Robinson—who oversaw Tao’s trial—wrote that the evidence against Tao was insufficient to support the wire fraud convictions. “Though Tao was deceptive in not disclosing his activities at FZU, there was no evidence that Tao obtained money or property through the alleged scheme to defraud, as required under the wire fraud statute,” she wrote. She upheld the conviction against Tao for making false statements on a form he submitted to the University of Kansas.
“We’re all extremely gratified that the judge recognized that there was no fraud here,” says Tao’s defense attorney, Peter R. Zeidenberg of ArentFox Schiff. He hopes this ruling marks the end of China Initiative prosecutions for fraud based on nondisclosure.
Earlier this month, a federal judge upheld convictions against Harvard University chemist Charles Lieber for making false statements, failing to disclose income on tax returns, and failing to report a foreign bank account. Lieber’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for January. Mingqing Xiao, a math professor at Southern Illinois University, was sentenced Sept. 19 to probation and a $600 fine for filing incorrect tax returns and failing to report a foreign bank account.
Tao awaits his January 2023 sentencing hearing from his family home in Lawrence, Kansas, Zeidenberg says.