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Citing ‘Deception,’ Not ‘Espionage,’ Judge in KU Case Imposes Supervised Release, Not Jail

Since his arrest in August 2019, Feng “Franklin” Tao has published 16 “research articles” for the University of Kansas (KU), authored a book and began writing a second one. To attorneys for the associate professor of chemical engineering, these activities are further evidence that Tao’s “truly breath-taking” productivity continued at home and that he should be sentenced to no more than time served.

Prosecutors, however, argued Tao was “appearing to act as if he has done nothing wrong” and said his research-related efforts demonstrated his “lack of remorse” that warranted a 30-month jail term on the sole count of making a false statement for which he was convicted in September. The government, claiming Tao’s “unreported support and affiliations call into question the validity of all of the research that he has performed” under National Science Foundation (NSF) awards, also wanted Tao to be fined $100,000.

Tried on eight charges, a jury in April found Tao, 51, not guilty on four and guilty on four.[1] In September, Julie A. Robinson, senior judge for the District of Kansas, reversed the guilty verdict on three charges but upheld the charge of making a false statement, which related to his failure in 2018 to disclose on a KU form his affiliation with a Chinese university.[2] Robinson tossed wire and grant fraud charges.

Tao’s crime of being “deceptive” about what he was doing, Robinson said, did not warrant jail time. Her remarks during sentencing provide rare insight into such highly controversial cases related to investigators’ ties to China, illuminating both the pressures Tao faced and how KU responded, as well as the seemingly fraught nature of most of the government’s claims. Tao plans to appeal his conviction.

Citing her changed understanding of the case, on Jan. 18, Robinson sentenced Tao to two years of supervised release (which, unlike probation, is imposed instead of jail, not afterward). In her view, Tao was a “mid-career” researcher whose work had little commercial value and went to China to see if his academic fortunes would be superior there than at KU.

“Frankly, I thought going into this case I was going to hear evidence that whatever Dr. Tao’s research was about, it was something that would hurt our taxpayer-funded research [and] science agencies, it would hurt the taxpayers that he went to China and spent time there working with them because he was sharing information that taxpayers had funded for him to share with KU and with the federal government or whatever, but that’s not what the evidence was,” Robinson said, according to a transcript of the sentencing hearing RRC obtained.

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