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Misconduct

University of Kansas chemist indicted on fraud charges

Feng (Franklin) Tao allegedly received a salary from US grant funds while employed by Fuzhou University

by Jyllian Kemsley
August 23, 2019

 

20190823lnp1-catalyst.jpg
Credit: Franklin Tao/U. Kansas
Tucked inside the pores of a zeolite, a single-atom rhodium catalyst developed by Feng (Franklin)Tao couples methane, carbon monoxide, and oxygen to make acetic acid at low temperature (Rh = green; Al = gold; O = red; C = blue).

University of Kansas chemist Feng (Franklin) Tao was indicted on Aug. 21 on US federal charges alleging he concealed working for a Chinese university since May 2018.

“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,” says John C. Demers, US assistant attorney general for national security, in a Department of Justice statement.

Tao is charged with one count of wire fraud and three counts of program fraud, according to the indictment. For the program fraud, the indictment cites $37,566 in salary that Tao received through grant funding from the US National Science Foundation and US Department of Energy for research on heterogeneous catalysis.

Tao pleaded not guilty to the charges at a hearing on Aug. 23. He has since been released from custody pending trial. A status hearing on the case is scheduled for Oct. 7.

“Dr. Tao is not guilty of any wrongdoing, and we hope and expect him to be fully vindicated,” says his attorney, Peter R. Zeidenberg of the firm Arent Fox. “I think this is the result of a terrible misunderstanding.”

The indictment alleges that around May 1, 2018, Tao signed a 5-year Changjiang Scholar Distinguished Professor employment contract that appointed him to a full-time position at Fuzhou University. Tao did not disclose the contract to KU and certified to the university that he had no conflict of interest, the indictment says.

Tao sometimes listed his affiliation with Fuzhou University in journal articles published starting in September 2018, for example Chem. Commun. 2018, DOI: 10.1039/c8cc03497d and J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2019, DOI: 10.1021/jacs.8b10910. In at least some of those papers, he did not specifically acknowledge funding from Chinese agencies.

If convicted, Tao could face 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 for wire fraud, and 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 for each of the program fraud counts, the Justice Department says.

“We learned of this potential criminal activity this spring, and we reported it to authorities and have cooperated with the ongoing investigation,” KU Chancellor Douglas A. Girod says in a statement. “Additionally, we have placed the faculty member on paid administrative leave. Given that this is a personnel matter and an ongoing criminal investigation, we are not able to share additional details.”

UPDATE:

It was updated again on Aug. 31, 2019, to note that Tao has been released from custody, to add a quote from his attorney, and to delete mention of his previous attorney, Tom Bartee, an assistant federal public defender for the District of Kansas.

This story was updated on Aug. 23, 2019, to add information from a court hearing on that day. The story was corrected on Aug. 27, 2019, to say that Tao was not a member of the chemistry department at the time of the indictment.

Tao received a PhD in chemistry in 2006 from Princeton University, then worked as a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley, according to a CV stored on web.archive.org in 2015 (as of C&EN deadline, a link to his CV on a KU web page said that the account had been suspended). He joined the faculty at the University of Notre Dame in 2010 and moved to KU in 2014. At KU, he is a professor in the department of chemical and petroleum engineering and a member of KU’s Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis. Although previously affiliated with the department of chemistry, he was not part of the department at the time of the indictment.

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