An associate professor of engineering at the University of Kansas was indicted Wednesday on federal fraud charges in a scheme that involved secret full-time employment with a Chinese university while performing research financed by the U.S. government.
The U.S. Department of Justice, following a campus raid Tuesday by the FBI, indicted Feng "Franklin" Tao, 47, of Lawrence, with one count of wire fraud and three counts of program fraud. He worked since 2014 at KU's Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis, which conducts research on sustainable technology to conserve natural resources and energy.
"Tao is alleged to have defrauded the U.S. 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," said John Demers, assistance attorney general for national security.
Demers said federal law and university policy required potential conflicts of commitment by a researcher to be disclosed.
KU Chancellor Doug Girod said the university learned of potential criminal activity in the spring and reported it to authorities. He said the university had cooperated with the ongoing federal investigation.
"We take these allegations very seriously," Girod said. "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."
The Department of Justice said the indictment alleged Tao signed a five-year contract in May 2018 with Fuzhou University in China designating him as a Changjiang scholar distinguished professor. The contract required him to be a full-time employee of the Chinese university. While Tao was under contract with Fuzhou University, he was conducting research at KU funded through two U.S. Department of Energy contracts and four National Science Foundation contracts.
In Tao's annual conflict-of-interest report, federal prosecutors said, he falsely claimed to have no conflict of interest. The indictment alleged Tao fraudulently received $37,000 in salary paid for by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. He's a member of the chemical and petroleum engineering department at KU.
Tao is scheduled to make an initial appearance Friday in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in federal prison and a fine up to $250,000 on the wire fraud count, and up to 10 years and a fine up to $250,000 on each of the program fraud counts.
In a statement, the KU chancellor said the university was committed to collaborative work with researchers from other nations in the pursuit of scientific knowledge.
"At the same time, we also have been reminded of the importance of collaborating with federal law enforcement agencies," Girod said. "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."