A former University of Kansas professor who was accused of hiding work he did in China has avoided prison in the latest setback to a controversial Trump-era crackdown on Chinese influence in academia.
United States District Judge Julie Robinson on Wednesday sentenced Feng “Franklin” Tao to time served after earlier throwing out his conviction on three counts of wire fraud.
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Robinson said Tao’s single remaining conviction for making a false statement did not warrant a prison sentence and there was no evidence he shared proprietary information with anyone in China.
“This is not an espionage case,” Robinson said. “Maybe that’s what the Department of Justice thought what was going on but that’s not what was going on.”
Prosecutors had sought two and a half years in prison for Tao.
Tao’s lawyer, Peter Zeidenberg, said his client was “immensely relieved by the sentence”.
“We were also gratified to hear the judge say, once again, that neither the government nor KU [University of Kansas] was defrauded or harmed and that Dr Tao did all of the work required of him to the complete satisfaction of these entities.”
Zeidenberg said Tao would appeal his remaining false statement conviction for failing to disclose his affiliation with a Chinese university on a form submitted to the University of Kansas.
Tao, who was indicted in 2019, was among about two dozen academics charged as part of the “China Initiative”, launched in 2018 under former US President Donald Trump.
The Justice Department under President Joe Biden ended the initiative in February 2022, following several failed prosecutions and criticism that it chilled research and fuelled bias against Asian people, though it said it would continue pursuing cases over national security threats posed by China.
Gisela Perez Kusakawa, executive director of the Asian American Scholar Forum, said Tao’s case raised concerns among Asian-American researchers that they would be targeted, particularly in an era of increasing bias against them.
She said the disclosure form Tao was convicted of filling out improperly is vague and that there should be a system to allow researchers to fix such mistakes, rather than subjecting them to federal prosecution.
“We want the public to know that Asian-American scientists are contributing to this country,” Kusakawa said. “They are the very people this county needs right now for the research to continue to advance.”
Prosecutors said Tao, who worked on renewable energy projects, concealed his affiliation with China’s Fuzhou University from the University of Kansas and two federal agencies that provided grant funding for the professor’s research.
Prosecutor Adam Barry said in court Wednesday that Tao’s actions warranted a prison sentence because the institutions lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in research money due to his deception. He said a sentence also would provide a deterrent for other researchers who consider not being honest and transparent about their research activities.
The US Attorney’s Office in Kansas declined to comment.
Tao was born in China and moved to the US in 2002. He earned his doctorate degree from Princeton University and worked at the University of California-Berkeley and Notre Dame before August 2014, when he was hired as a tenured associate professor at the University of Kansas’s Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis.
The centre conducts research on sustainable technology to conserve natural resources and energy.