LAWRENCE, KS (KCTV) – Federal officials have indicted a researcher working on government projects at the University of Kansas for not disclosing connections in China.
Associate professor Feng “Franklin” Tao, 47, faces a count of wire fraud and three counts of program fraud.
Prosecutors said Tao has been employed since August of 2014 at the school’s Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis. However, federal officials claim Tao signed a five-year contract with Fuzhou University in China in May of 2018 that required him to be a full-time employee of that institution.
Researchers at the CEBC investigate sustainable technology to conserve natural resources and energy, and Tao was doing research at KU funded by contracts from the U.S Department of Energy & the National Science Foundation, including after the time he signed the Chinese contract.
Federal officials said Tao falsely claimed to have no conflict of interest in a required annuals report and alleges that he took more than $37,000 in salary from the government agencies in a fraudulent manner.
“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,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said. “Any potential conflicts of commitment by a researcher must be disclosed as required by law and university policies. The Department will continue to pursue any unlawful failure to do so.”
Tao faces up to 20 years in federal confinement & up to a $250,000 fine for the charge of wire fraud, and up to 10 years & up to $250,000 for each of the program fraud charges.
Officials at the University of Kansas cooperated with the FBI’s investigation into Tao. Wednesday afternoon the school released a statement, saying in part that KU officials “take these allegations very seriously.”
As has been publicly reported, one of our faculty members has been involved in an investigation of alleged criminal activity. He is accused of fraud related to his work at our Lawrence campus and in China.
We take these allegations very seriously. We learned of this potential criminal activity this spring, and we reported it to authorities and have cooperated with the ongoing investigation. 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.
We can and should, however, reaffirm our commitment to the collaborative environment that serves as a cornerstone in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. As reinforced in a recent op-ed column from the presidents of the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, international scholars — including those from China — are critical to our success, and they play a vital role in our educational and research enterprises.
At the same time, we also have been reminded of the importance of collaborating with federal law enforcement agencies. We remain vigilant in our own internal efforts to maintain the integrity and security of our research, including the research we undertake on behalf of federal research granting agencies and, ultimately, U.S. taxpayers. Our Office of Global Operations and Security serves as an important resource for faculty and staff to help them conduct international work in a safe and secure way. The office works to manage and mitigate risk and protect intellectual property while synchronizing efforts related to international work, export compliance, and security operations.
After the formation of that office in summer 2018, we looked at our policies and procedures that regulate how we conduct research and exchange information in an increasingly interconnected world and considered ways they could be improved. One example is our restricted party policy, which we created last December. This policy ensures that we are complying with U.S. regulations that prohibit transactions with various parties that appear on government restricted lists.
As with all of our efforts in this area, our goal is to reduce risk and act strategically while still fulfilling the mission of the university. We are continuing to update and develop our policies and procedures related to conflict of interest, foreign collaboration, and network security, among other areas. We will need the help of our faculty and staff in order to be successful as we concentrate on this process during the year ahead, and we will update you further as these efforts develop.
These recent events serve as a reminder of the importance of this work across our campuses, and we thank you for your attention to these issues. They are becoming more and more significant not just at KU, but at leading research universities across the United States.
Douglas A. Girod