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U.S. Says Scientist Hid Job in China. Web Search Tells Otherwise

Peter Waldman and Robert Burnson

(Bloomberg) -- A University of Kansas researcher was indicted for allegedly hiding that he was working full-time for a Chinese university at the same time he was doing U.S-funded industrial research.

But a web search shows that Franklin (Feng) Tao appeared to be moonlighting in plain sight: His dual Kansas and China ties are disclosed in at least two U.S.-funded research papers published last year, as well as in several Chinese-language websites easily translatable online.

The charges come amid intense scrutiny U.S. law enforcement officials are applying to ethnic Chinese scientists. Agencies across the federal government have mobilized against potential Chinese industrial spies, warning companies and universities and anyone else with intellectual property to be particularly vigilant when dealing with Chinese business partners and employees who might be what Christopher Wray, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, calls “nontraditional collectors” of information.

Read More: China’s Top Talent Retreats From U.S. Amid Scientist Crackdown

Though Tao was essentially charged with undisclosed moonlighting and not with economic espionage or theft of intellectual property, his indictment was announced by the National Security Division of the U.S. Justice Department in Washington. He was accused of defrauding the government by taking federal grant money while he was employed and paid by a Chinese research university -- “a fact that he hid from his university and federal agencies,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said in a statement.

Tao worked at the Kansas institution’s Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis, which develops manufacturing processes that prevent waste and conserve natural resources. The indictment alleges that Tao signed a five-year contract in May 2018 to work full-time at Fuzhou University and failed to disclose that in an annual conflict of interest report he was required to file with the University of Kansas.

One 2018 journal article that Tao collaborated on with several other Chinese researchers that’s posted on the U.S. National Institute of Health’s website acknowledges funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, as well as the National Science Foundation of China. Another published paper lists Tao’s dual university affiliations in China and Kansas.

In addition, Fuzhou University itself trumpeted Tao’s position at the school in a June 2018 article on its Chinese-language website, translatable with one click on Google’s web browser. Even Chinese-language Wikipedia lists Tao as a recruited “Changjiang Scholar” at Fuzhou University.

Tao, 47, faces as long as 20 years in federal prison and a fine of as much as $250,000 on the wire fraud count, and up to 10 years and a fine up to $250,000 on each of the program fraud counts, according to the statement.

Representatives of the Justice Department didn’t immediately respond after regular business hours to a request for comment on information about Tao posted online.

The electronic court docket for Tao’s case didn’t identify his attorney.

The case is USA v. Tao, 2:19-cr-20052, U.S. District Court, District of Kansas (Kansas City).

To contact the reporters on this story: Peter Waldman in San Francisco at pwaldman@bloomberg.net;Robert Burnson in San Francisco at rburnson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: David Glovin at dglovin@bloomberg.net, Peter Blumberg, Joe Schneider

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