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No jail time for Kansas professor convicted for undisclosed research ties to China

A federal judge today handed down the lightest possible sentence in the U.S. government’s case against University of Kansas (KU), Lawrence, chemical engineer Franklin Tao. The decision is the latest rejection by U.S. courts of the government’s attempt to prosecute Chinese-born scientists for lapses in reporting their research interactions with China.

U.S. District Court Senior Judge Julie Robinson imposed no jail time and no fine for Tao in sentencing him for making a false statement to KU in reporting his ties to Fuzhou University. Government attorneys had requested a 30-month sentence and a fine of $100,000. Tao, who has been on unpaid administrative leave from KU since his arrest in August 2019, faces 2 years of probation, but Robinson said that could be cut in half for good behavior.

The government had alleged that Tao defrauded KU and two federal agencies by failing to disclose his research ties to China and then lying about those collaborations. (Prosecutors said a job offer from Fuzhou represented a conflict of commitment with his duties at KU, although Tao never accepted the position.) In April 2022, a jury convicted Tao of three counts of wire fraud as well as making the false statement, but 5 months later Robinson threw out the fraud convictions. In today’s decision, she also rejected the government’s argument that Tao’s filing errors warranted a 30-month sentence.

“Dr. Tao is immensely relieved that Judge Robinson agreed that a sentence of time served was appropriate,” his lawyer, Peter Zeidenberg, said in a statement after the sentence was handed down in federal court in Kansas City, Kansas. (Tao spent 1 week in jail after his arrest.) “We were also gratified to hear the judge say, once again, that neither the government nor KU was defrauded or harmed, and that Dr. Tao did all of the work required of him to the complete satisfaction of these entities.”

Speaking from the bench before the sentencing, Robinson made a point of separating Tao’s case from those of alleged economic espionage that the U.S. Department of Justice has brought under the China Initiative, begun in 2018 during the administration of then-President Donald Trump. “This was not an economic espionage case,” Robinson said.

Neither was Tao trying to rip off the government, the judge continued. “Frankly, I thought going into this case that I was going to hear evidence … [that Tao] hurt taxpayers,” Robinson said. Instead, the work Tao was doing “is the type of research that is fundamental research … something that is freely shared.”

Robinson commended Tao for publishing 16 papers and a book since his arrest, work done from his home after KU banned him from campus. That high level of productivity is an indicator of his continued value to society, she said. She dismissed the government’s claim that Tao’s entire body of research is unreliable simply because he omitted relevant information on the required disclosure forms at KU.

The government’s argument “reflects a lack of knowledge about the process of scientific research and publication, which is based on rigorous peer review,” says Gisela Perez Kusakawa of the Asian American Scholar Forum, which wrote to the judge on Tao’s behalf before his sentencing. “There’s no basis to argue that failing to report a potential time commitment calls into question the validity of the research.”

Zeidenberg said Tao will ask an appellate court to throw out his conviction. Tao is also fighting the university’s efforts to terminate his employment as a tenured professor.

Tao’s wife says that uncertainty continues to weigh on her husband and their family. “Our lives will never be the same as before [his arrest],” Hong Peng says. “It’s hard to find the words to describe what we have been through.” A GoFundMe campaign has raised $750,000 toward a goal of $1.9 million to help defray his legal fees.

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