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Judge mulls fate of Kansas researcher who denies Chinese work

Posted at 7:01 AM, Jan 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-06 08:01:21-05

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — A federal judge will hear oral arguments on whether to toss out the indictment against a University of Kansas associate professor accused of secretly working for a Chinese university — a case that was upended when his attorneys accused a visiting scholar of fabricating the allegations after unsuccessfully trying to extort their client.

The hearing Monday before U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson stems from a November court filing in which attorneys for Feng "Franklin" Tao contend the unpaid visiting scholar was angry at Tao because she believed she should have gotten more credit for certain research manuscripts. After Tao declined to change the attribution, she demanded that he pay her $300,000 or else she would falsely accuse him of economic espionage, wrote his attorneys, who included with their motion emails that they say the scholar sent to their client.

Tao's attorneys told the court that she hacked into his email account to obtain a copy of an unsigned job offer from China that she provided to the FBI, sparking an investigation.

Tao has asked the court to dismiss the federal indictment charging him with one count of wire fraud and three counts of program fraud. The government has alleged that the Lawrence man failed to report on a conflict-of-interest form that he was working full-time for Fuzhou University in China while also doing research in Kansas on projects funded by the U.S. government.

His attorneys argued in a court filing that Tao never accepted the offer for a teaching position in China and that he therefore had no obligation to disclose it as a conflict to the university.

The government's position is unclear because the spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office has said prosecutors would respond to the court, and the judge has sealed not only the initial defense motion but also all subsequent court filings over the issue.

The visiting scholar, whom The Associated Press is not naming because she has not been charged with any crimes, did not respond to an email seeking comment about Tao's allegations. It is unclear whether she is still in the United States.

Tau, an associate professor of engineering at the University of Kansas, was born in China and moved to the United States in 2002. He has been employed since August 2014 at the university's Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis in Lawrence. The center conducts research on sustainable technology to conserve natural resources and energy.