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Prosecutors accuse KU professor of leading 'double life' in trial over concealing China ties

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3

Franklin Tao was arrested under the Trump-era China initiative, a federal program designed to catch spies sharing American intellectual property and secrets with China. In opening statements, prosecutors characterized Tao as deceptive and secretive about his work with Fuzhou University in China.

The trial of University of Kansas chemistry professor Feng “Franklin” Tao got underway Tuesday in Kansas City, Kansas. In opening statements, the prosecution and defense presented contrasting portraits of Tao.

Tao faces criminal charges of wire fraud and making false statements in a case that has drawn national attention. He was arrested under the Trump-era China initiative, a federal program designed to catch spies sharing American intellectual property and secrets with China. Tao, however, is not charged with espionage, but with eight felonies related to allegations that he did not fully disclose to KU and the federal government his relationship with a Chinese university.

Prosecutors characterized Tao as deceptive and secretive about his work with Fuzhou University in China.

“It’s about the lies, it’s about the fraud, it’s about the concealment and deceit” Tao used to conceal his efforts to recruit students and set up a lab at Fuzhou University, said Adam Barry, a Department of Justice lawyer.

Barry characterized Tao as taking pains to conceal that relationship and his participation in the Changjiang professorship program from KU, the Federal Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, which had authorized grants for his research.

Tao earned more than $100,000 a year from KU, Barry said, and was considered a full-time professor. But the government will show Tao’s held extensive contract negotiations with Fuzhou shortly before his arrest in 2019. The prosecution would present proof, Barry said, that Tao tried to recruit students and line up lab equipment, and that he traveled extensively to China, essentially working a second, undeclared job.

Barry said, however, that the government does not have evidence of a signed contract between Tao and Fuzhou.

Tao lied about an arrangement to collaborate in Germany when in fact he moved to China and worked there for nine months, something he should have disclosed as a full-time KU professor, Barry said. He went on to characterize Tao as having a “double life,” in which he “engaged in an elaborate scheme to lie to KU, not only about where he was but what he was doing.”

Tao should have disclosed the outside relationships to KU and to the granting institutions, Barry said. Although Tao is an experienced researcher, he took pains to prevent his contacts from mentioning Fuzhou, discouraged written communication and kept folders about his Fuzhou work partitioned separately on his computer, he said.

Defense lawyer, Peter Zeidenberg, said Tao was falsely accused of espionage by a vengeful graduate student who had tried to extort money from him. Nothing about his research was classified or confidential, the defense said.

The government rushed into an indictment without doing its homework, Zeidenberg said, and is now trying to make a criminal case out of infractions so minor they might normally be the purview of a human relations department.

“Moonlighting. That’s the government’s case,” Zeidenberg told the jury. “For that they have charged him with eight felonies.”

Zeidenberg attacked the prosecution’s case, noting that no one has put a dollar amount to Tao’s alleged fraud. “Dr. Tao did not defraud the University of Kansas, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation of a dime. All of the research he was expected to do, he did.”

Tao also did not transfer technology to China, nor did he use grant money for his own personal gain, Zeidenberg said.

The government only took an interest because it involved China, Zeidenberg said. Moreover, Tao had misgivings about the Fuzhou position and never accepted it, the lawyer said. At the time in question, Tao was not required to disclose outside funding to the National Science Foundation or the Department of Energy.

Prosecutors are pursuing the case, Zeidenberg said, because they were misled by one of Tao’s former graduate students, who felt slighted and had attempted to extort $300,000 from Tao.

Zeidenberg argued the student filed a false report accusing Tao of espionage, resulting in surveillance of Tao and his family – including the use of drones – and searches of the bank accounts of his school-age children and members of a church who loaned him money.

The student sent in the false report under an alias, Zeidenberg said. “Her plan worked perfectly. She manipulated the FBI into destroying Dr. Tao’s life, and they fell for it hook, line and sinker.”

Tao was the first to be charged under the China Initiative, a program that resulted in increased attention to Chinese American academics and about a dozen arrests. However, most charges under the indicative have been on narrower issues, such as fraud, rather than espionage.

Some Asian American advocacy groups say the charges amount to racial profiling.

In February, the Biden administration announced it was ending the initiative.

As the jury was being chosen Monday, a group of Tao’s supporters held signs and called on the court to deliver a fair trial.

Tao’s wife, Hong Peng, said the legal process has cost her family around $1.3 million and resulted in emotional trauma for the family. She and defense lawyers noted Tao is considered the most productive researcher in his department and that his research on fundamental science questions was expected to be published, not kept secret.

The trial is expected to take three weeks.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Tao's salary from KU. It is $100,000.

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Roxie Hammill