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University of Kansas chemist Feng ‘Franklin’ Tao’s attorneys move to dismiss charges for fraud and false statements

‘A garden-variety employment issue’ should not be a federal case, defense argues

by Jyllian Kemsley
August 21, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 32


Attorneys for University of Kansas chemist Feng “Franklin” Tao have filed motions to dismiss the federal case against him for fraud and making false statements stemming from his interactions with China. A pretrial hearing for Judge Julie A. Robinson to consider the motions is scheduled for Oct. 1 in the US District Court for the District of Kansas.

Charges against Feng “Franklin” Tao

According to the June 24 indictment, Tao engaged in an effort to participate in a Chinese talent plan that benefits China, to obtain US federal grant funding and his university salary under false pretenses, and to conceal the scheme. The specific charges cite instances of wire fraud and false statements:

Wire fraud

1. an email regarding travel

2. electronic submission of a grant application to the US Department of Energy

3. electronic submission of a university conflict-of-interest form

4. an email regarding a research project

5. an email to the US Department of Energy

6. electronic submission of a university conflict-of-interest form

7. an email regarding a grant application to a Chinese funding agency

False statements

1. a university conflict-of-interest form

2. a university conflict-of-interest form

3. an email to the US Department of Energy

Source: USA v. Feng Tao, US District Court for the District of Kansas, case number 2:19-cr-20052-JAR, second superseding indictment filed on June 24, 2020.

A June 24 indictment alleges that, while employed as a KU chemical engineering professor with funding from US agencies, Tao concealed that he also secured a full-time faculty position at Fuzhou University in China. The indictment charges him with seven counts of wire fraud involving several emails and submission of inaccurate KU forms. The indictment also charges Tao with three counts of making false statements on KU conflict-of-interest forms and to the US Department of Energy (DOE).

If convicted on the current charges, Tao faces up to 20 years in federal prison and a fine up to $250,000 for each of the wire fraud counts. He also faces up to 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count of making a false statement.

The US Department of Justice is prosecuting Tao as part of its “China Initiative” to curb theft of US intellectual property.

Tao’s attorneys argue that his actions were not crimes because merely withholding information is not fraud unless it is done to obtain money or property. In one of the motions to dismiss, they note that Tao “is not alleged to have stolen trade secrets; or committed economic espionage; or improperly shared sensitive information with anyone who was not entitled to receive it.”

The motion goes on to say that “the government has turned a garden-variety employment issue that is well within the jurisdiction of a Human Resources department—and could be resolved with enhanced disclosure forms, basic compliance training, or in a worst-case scenario a letter of reprimand—into a federal case involving nearly a dozen felony charges.”

In a second motion to dismiss, Tao’s attorneys contend that the prosecution misled the grand jury to obtain the indictment, including by having a US Federal Bureau of Investigation agent imply that Tao was a spy for China. “At the very least, this misconduct gives rise to ‘grave doubt’ about whether the grand jury’s decision to indict Dr. Tao was free from the government’s influence,” the motion says.



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