WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A researcher at the University of Kansas was indicted on federal fraud charges on Wednesday for allegedly concealing ties to a Chinese university while doing research funded by the U.S. government, the U.S. Justice Department said.
Feng “Franklin” Tao, 47, an associate professor at a University of Kansas center that conducts sustainable technology research, was charged with one count of wire fraud and three counts of program fraud.
The indictment comes amid increased concern by U.S. officials about the risk from China to U.S. universities, part of a broader effort by President Donald Trump’s administration to confront Beijing over what Washington sees as the use of sometimes illicit methods for acquiring rapid technological advancement.
Intelligence officials have issued dire warnings about the threat of intellectual property theft or even espionage, amid an ongoing trade war with China.
China denies such activities.
U.S. authorities said Tao hid the fact that he was working full time for Fuzhou University in China while conducting research at the University of Kansas funded through U.S. Department of Energy and National Science Foundation contracts.
The indictment alleges that Tao signed a five-year contract in May 2018 with Fuzhou that required him to be a full-time employee of the Chinese school. Kansas required Tao to file an annual conflict of interest report, but Tao “falsely claimed” he had no conflicts of interest in those reports, the Justice Department said.
The indictment says Tao fraudulently received more than $37,000 in salary from the Energy Department and National Science Foundation.
A Justice Department spokesman said Tao had not entered a plea.
Department of Justice officials in Kansas did not immediately respond to questions about whether Tao is a U.S. citizen or whether he was working with classified materials.
If convicted, Tao faces up to 20 years in federal prison and a fine of 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 three program fraud counts.
The University of Kansas cooperated and assisted in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s probe of Tao.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Leslie Adler)