A University of Kansas researcher was indicted on federal charges for hiding the fact he was working full time for a Chinese university while doing research in Kansas funded by the U.S. government, the Kansas District of the U.S. Attorney's Office said Wednesday in a news release.
Feng “Franklin” Tao, an associate professor at KU's Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis, is charged with one count of wire fraud and three counts of program fraud.
Chancellor Douglas Girod said in a message to the University Wednesday evening that Tao has been placed on administrative leave.
Tao has been at the CEBC, whose "mission is to conduct research on sustainable technology to conserve natural resources and energy," since 2014.
“Tao is alleged to have defrauded the US 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 Assistant Attorney General Demers for National Security in the release. “Any potential conflicts of commitment by a researcher must be disclosed as required by law and university policies. The Department will continue to pursue any unlawful failure to do so.”
The indictment alleges in May 2018 Tao signed a five-year contract with Fuzhou University in China that required him to be a full-time employee.
While Tao was under contract with Fuzhou University, he conducted research at KU funded through two U.S. Department of Energy contracts and four National Science Foundation contracts, the release said.
"Kansas Board of Regents’ policy requires staff to file an annual conflict of interest report," according to the release. "In Tao’s reports to KU, he falsely claimed to have no conflicts of interest."
The indictment alleges he fraudulently received more than $37,000 in salary paid by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.
If convicted, Tao faces up to 20 years in federal prison and a fine up to $250,000 on the wire fraud count. He faces up to 10 years in federal prison and a fine up to $250,000 on each of the program fraud counts.
The University cooperated and assisted in the investigation, according to the release.
According to Girod's message, the University was first informed of potential criminal activity in spring and reported it to authorities.
Girod said that given this is a personnel matter and an ongoing criminal investigation, they were not able to provide further details.
"We can and should, however, reaffirm our commitment to the collaborative environment that serves as a cornerstone in the pursuit of scientific knowledge," Girod said. "As reinforced in a recent op-ed column from the presidents of the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, international scholars — including those from China — are critical to our success, and they play a vital role in our educational and research enterprises.
"At the same time, we also have been reminded of the importance of collaborating with federal law enforcement agencies," Girod continued. "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."