- A faculty member at a research university was convicted of making false statements to the federal government, a felony, for failing to disclose an outside engagement with a Chinese institution on his university’s conflict of interest disclosure form.
- When faced with conflicts of interest disclosure obligations, university faculty with federal funding for research should disclose all engagements that may raise questions of conflict of commitment or interest.
- Developing and implementing clear and robust processes to timely disclose and manage potential conflicts of interest, and ensuring those policies are current and are understood by faculty, should continue to be a top priority for all research institutions.
Last month, former University of Kansas Professor Feng “Franklin” Tao was sentenced to time served and two years of supervised release for making false statements in the University of Kansas’s conflict of interest and commitment disclosure form. Because the University, like many research universities, uses its disclosure form to implement and manage conflict of interest policies for federal grants, Professor Tao’s statements violated 18 U.S.C. § 1001, a broad statute that prohibits lying to the federal government.
The University’s disclosure form required Professor Tao to disclose and secure prior approval for “any consulting or outside involvement” and to “disclose on an ad hoc basis current or prospective situations that may raise questions of conflict of commitment or interest.” Professor Tao failed to disclose his participation in the Chinese government’s Changjiang Scholar program and a related eight-month period of involvement with Fuzhou University while he was on a spring “buy-out” from his teaching duties at the University of Kansas.
The Changjiang Scholar program recruits scholars to work at Chinese universities by offering them resources to perform their research. Although the details of Professor Tao’s exact commitments were unclear, during the eight-month period he worked in China, he applied for research funding, recruited graduate students, and procured equipment at Fuzhou University.
Professor Tao had certified upon submitting the University of Kansas’s disclosure form that the information included in it was “true, complete, and correct”; that he had read and complied with the relevant University policies; that he would secure approval before engaging in any outside consulting activities and outside employment; and that he would promptly report any changes.
During sentencing, U.S. District Judge Julie A. Robinson spoke about several notable aspects of the case that factored into her sentencing decision. Judge Robinson remarked that there was no evidence that any conflict of interest had in fact biased Professor Tao’s research results or put the integrity of the research into question. She also noted that although Professor Tao did in fact understand that his disclosure obligations required him to disclose his Fuzhou affiliation, the disclosure requirements in the University of Kansas’s forms and forms used by other universities may in some cases be ambiguous, citing one letter of support for Professor Tao by a writer who reported that he had been asking for clarity around the disclosure requirements at his own university “for years” and had not received it.
Judge Robinson concluded that there was “certainly at least a concern about a conflict of time,” and Professor Tao did knowingly fail to disclose – and otherwise concealed – the award and activity when it arose: “That particular institutional responsibilities form wasn’t fully accurate, and that’s why Dr. Tao sits here today as a convicted felon and having suffered the consequences over the last three and a half years and the consequences of that going forward.”
As counterbalancing factors, Judge Robinson noted: “This is not a case about espionage.” The judge explained that there was no evidence that Professor Tao stole anything from the University of Kansas, his grantors the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Energy, or the American taxpayers. There was also no evidence that Professor Tao shared information in China that taxpayers had funded for him to share exclusively with the University of Kansas and the federal government. To the contrary, Judge Robinson noted that he was conducting fundamental research that was freely shared globally and in scientific journals. There was additional testimony that the research was 20 to 50 years from being monetized or commercialized, if ever.
Even in the absence of such circumstances, however, Judge Robinson clarified that the need for academic integrity remained critically important to her sentencing decision, including ensuring that conflicts be disclosed so that people operate without bias and there are no questions as to the integrity of the data and research itself.
The case had originally been brought in connection with the U.S. Justice Department’s “China Initiative,” which was formally ended in February 2022. Professor Tao was arrested in August 2019 and spent a week in jail before being released on bond to home detention. He ultimately faced a jury trial which began on March 21, 2022 and lasted almost two weeks. On April 8, 2022, Professor Tao was convicted on one count of making false statements in certified forms, along with three counts of wire fraud.
Professor Tao then renewed his motion for judgement of acquittal, and on September 20, 2022, Judge Robinson granted the motion for the wire fraud counts, but denied the judgement for an acquittal and for a new trial for the false statement charge. Judge Robinson found that although Professor Tao was deceptive in not disclosing his activities at Fuzhou University, “there was no evidence that Tao obtained money or property through the alleged scheme to defraud, as required under the wire fraud statute.” Sentencing took place on January 18, 2023, and Professor Tao appealed the final judgement on January 25, 2023.
The case sends a strong message to faculty and universities nationwide that failure to comply with the conflict of interest and conflict of commitment requirements of universities and federal grantors could put universities and their faculty at direct risk of criminal sanctions. Arguable ambiguity in the disclosure forms, a potential absence of any actual conflict (rather than merely the opportunity for one), the absence of any proof of economic espionage, and the lack of any demonstrable theft or fraudulent intent were all found to be insufficient bases to avoid a felony conviction here (subject to appellate review). Developing and implementing clear and robust processes to timely disclose and manage potential conflicts of interest, and ensuring that those policies are current and are understood by faculty, should continue to be a top priority for all research institutions.
Case cite: U.S. v. Tao, case number 2:19-cr-20052, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas