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Former University of Kansas researcher Feng “Franklin” Tao, who was accused of concealing his previous work in China, has been sentenced to time served on Wednesday.
According to U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson, Tao did not deserve a prison sentence for his actions.
Tao, who was arrested in 2019, served a week in prison and has since been restricted from traveling and forced to wear an electronic monitoring device.
His wife, Hong Peng, lamented the case's effect on her husband’s life.
“He wants his reputation back,” she said following the verdict. “This has turned our lives upside down.”
Robinson has ruled that Tao no longer needs to wear the ankle monitor and will not be confined to his home during his supervised release since he had no prior criminal record.
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Tao’s prosecution was initiated as part of the U.S. Justice Department’s China Initiative.
The program, which began in 2018, aimed at curbing alleged espionage efforts by Chinese scientists working in the U.S. Failed prosecutions and public criticism resulted in the program’s shutdown last year.
Tao was indicted in 2019 for not disclosing his participation in the Chinese talent program, the Changjiang Professorship, on a form he filled out for Kansas in 2019.
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As part of the program, he set up a laboratory and recruited staff for Fuzhou University in China. Instead of divulging the information, he told Kansas officials that he went to Germany at the time.
Prosecutors accused Tao of defrauding the University of Kansas, the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation arguing that he lied about the work he did for the Chinese university. According to the university and government institutions that gave grants to Tao for research projects, they lost hundreds of thousands of dollars due to his actions.
In April, Tao was convicted of false statements and three counts of wire fraud but Robinson dismissed the wire fraud convictions in September.
Robinson noted in her verdict that prosecutors failed to present any evidence showing Tao received money for his work in China, a prerequisite for a conviction in wire fraud.
She further stated that she expected to hear evidence showing the financial loss that Tao purportedly caused or proof that he shared important research with Chinese officials at the expense of the federal agencies.
Robinson highlighted that the evidence only showed Tao fulfilling his responsibilities to the University of Kansas by working 70-hour weeks and inspiring his students to perform as diligently.
She also pointed out that the important research Tao did during his tenure is accessible across the scientific community.
“This is not an espionage case ... If it was, they presented absolutely no evidence that was going on,” Robinson was quoted as saying. “Believe me, if that was what was going on, it would have been a much different sentence today.”
Tao’s lawyer Peter Zeidenberg revealed that he intends to file an appeal for Tao’s remaining conviction.
Chinese-born Tao, who immigrated to the U.S. in 2002, became a tenured associate professor at the University of Kansas’ Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis in 2014.