University of Kansas professor convicted of concealing China ties

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Feng "Franklin" Tao, a professor at the University of Kansas, appears in an undated photo provided by the school. University of Kansas/Kelsey Kimberlin/Handout via REUTERS

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April 7 (Reuters) - A chemical engineering professor at the University of Kansas was convicted on Thursday on charges that he concealed work he was doing in China while conducting research that was funded by the U.S. government.

A federal jury in Kansas City found Feng "Franklin" Tao guilty of four of the eight counts against him including wire fraud charges in the latest trial to result from a now-ended Trump-era crackdown on Chinese influence within U.S. research.

He was one of about two dozen academics charged in the U.S. Department of Justice "China Initiative," which was launched during former President Donald Trump's administration to counter suspected Chinese economic espionage and research theft. read more

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The Justice Department in February ended the initiative following several failed prosecutions and criticism that it chilled academic research and fueled bias against Asians, though it said it would continue pursuing cases over threats posed by China. read more

Tao denied wrongdoing. His lawyer, Peter Zeidenberg, in a statement said he would challenge the verdict post-trial, saying U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson said she saw "significant issues" with the government's evidence.

"While we are deeply disappointed with the jury’s verdict, we believe it was so clearly against the weight of the evidence we are convinced that it will not stand," he said.

Tao began working in 2014 at the University of Kansas Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis on projects involving renewable energy, including shale gas.

Prosecutors alleged that in 2018, Tao signed a five-year contract with Fuzhou University in China that required him to be a full-time employee after applying to participate in one of China's "talent plans."

The Justice Department says China uses those programs to entice foreign researchers to share their knowledge with it.

Yet prosecutors said Tao falsely in reports filed with the school claimed no conflicts of interest, allowing him to defraud the university, the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.

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Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Howard Goller

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.