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A federal jury finds a Kansas scholar guilty of fraud and hiding ties to China

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Leila Fadel.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. A federal jury in Kansas City found a chemistry professor guilty of fraud and of making false statements. Prosecutors said Franklin Tao concealed work with a Chinese university and an affiliation with a Chinese government-run talent program. All of that was supposedly part of a scheme to defraud the University of Kansas and the government. And the jury agreed. He was charged under a Trump-era Department of Justice program called the China Initiative, which has since ended. Peter Zeidenberg is Mr. Tao's lead attorney, and he joins us now. Good morning.

PETER ZEIDENBERG: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do you make of the verdict against your client?

ZEIDENBERG: Well, we're very disappointed with the verdict, but we think that the evidence at the trial certainly and even the theory of the case doesn't support the charges, and we're hopeful he'll ultimately be vindicated.

INSKEEP: You intend to appeal then, I suppose.

ZEIDENBERG: Well, first, we start with the district court judge, who expressed her own skepticism about the charges. And we've - you know, no sentencing date has yet been set.

INSKEEP: Oh, do you mean to say that you would ask the district court judge to set aside this verdict by the jury?

ZEIDENBERG: Yes, exactly. Yes.

INSKEEP: And you can do that before sentencing or request a light sentence, I suppose.

ZEIDENBERG: Well, it would be before sentencing, yes.

INSKEEP: Now, let's ask the fundamental question here because he's accused of these specific crimes. But the general idea was that he was working too closely with the Chinese government while working in an American university, that he was somehow a Chinese spy. I'll just ask it directly - was your client a Chinese spy?

ZEIDENBERG: No. And in fact, that isn't part of the allegation. And that's what's so frustrating about it, that people make that confusing mistake. The case was, in fact, investigated as if he was an espionage case. He was falsely accused by someone who was extorting him for $300,000. And when she didn't get the money, she said, if you don't, I'll accuse you of being a spy. He was investigated, you know, for some kind of length. There was absolutely no allegation of that. He simply didn't fill out a conflict of interest form correctly and didn't update grant paperwork. That is the case. There is no hint, reference, has nothing to do with espionage. And yet, you know, people make this mistake over and over. And it's really - you know, you can imagine how infuriating it is and frustrating for someone like professor Tao, who's devoted his life to producing excellent science for, you know, these granting agencies.

And what's also infuriating is, you know, there's charge with grant fraud. And yet the two - the agencies involved, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy and KU, in fact, all said he did outstanding work for them and that they were completely satisfied with the work. So the idea that he's involved in grant fraud - and yet the victim agencies said he's doing exactly what we asked him to do. And, in fact, at the end of the year, that - one year after Franklin...

INSKEEP: Right.

ZEIDENBERG: ...Was allegedly in China, he was given an award in Kansas as one of the four best professors on campus.

INSKEEP: Any message to the Biden administration, which has ended this China Initiative but proceeded with this prosecution? You've got about 10 seconds here.

ZEIDENBERG: I'd say that the demise of the China Initiative are greatly exaggerated from where I sit.

INSKEEP: You mean that they're still going after people.

ZEIDENBERG: Yes.

INSKEEP: Peter Zeidenberg is lead attorney for Franklin Tao. Thank you so much.

ZEIDENBERG: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.