Defense will put on its case in closely watched trial of KU professor accused of wire fraud

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Feng “Franklin” Tao was arrested in 2019 after extensive law enforcement surveillance of his interactions with a Chinese research program and university.

An FBI agent instrumental in the arrest of University of Kansas professor Feng “Franklin” Tao will be called as a defense witness next week as Tao’s lawyers seek to discredit the government’s handling of the case.

Special Agent Steve Lampe is expected to take the witness stand Monday as the Tao trial, which has been closely watched by civil rights advocates, enters its final few days. Lampe was part of the investigation of the chemistry professor and researcher and has been sitting at the prosecution table during the trial.

Tao was arrested in 2019 after extensive law enforcement surveillance of his interactions with a Chinese research program and university. At the time, federal agents were operating under a Trump administration program called the “China Initiative” aimed at stopping alleged intellectual property theft.

The Biden administration terminated the program, which has ended with several cases being dropped. Critics have said the China Initiative unfairly targeted Asian and Asian American scientists.

Defense lawyer Peter Zeidenberg said during his opening statement that the defense team would focus on what they said was a rush to prosecution without a deeper look at the evidence. He mentioned a former graduate student of Tao’s who allegedly took revenge for a perceived slight by submitting a false report under assumed identities claiming that Tao was a tech spy.

Since Tao is charged with wire fraud, not espionage, mention of the China Initiative has been limited by the judge. Prosecutors have focused on allegations that Tao deceived KU by hiding his acceptance of a position at a Chinese university and attempted to recruit students to work with him in a lab there.

The government claims that Tao accepted a full-time position with Fuzhou University and did not disclose it to KU, while also receiving grants from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Questioning of the prosecution’s final two witnesses on Friday focused on supporting the charge that Tao was actively working with the Chinese university. He had been named a Changjiang Scholar, a prestigious award bestowed by the Chinese Ministry of Education. A requirement of that talent program was that recipients accept full-time, exclusive positions at Chinese universities.

Prosecutors presented batches of emails in which Tao tried to recruit promising students as researchers, along with contract negotiations with the university for building a lab to his requirements. They also submitted unsigned contract drafts. There were no signed contracts, but they called experts to the witness stand who spoke about other indirect indications from Chinese sources that made the appointment seem more final.

Defense lawyers pushed back against those allegations, arguing that exhibits from a Chinese website could not be verified as truthful without someone to question in court.

James Churchill, a Chinese Language specialist who was brought in to help investigators translate Tao’s documents, testified about a document he translated as saying Tao was “certified” to the position.

Defense lawyers disputed that translation, arguing the Chinese character could also mean he was merely “approved,” or “authorized” for hiring. Churchill acknowledged the other definitions as correct, but said he chose his translation based on context.

Another witness, Dr. Glenn Tiffert, a Chinese history expert at the Hoover Institution, a think tank based at Stanford University, testified about the importance to the Chinese government of developing talented scientists. China is among the most active countries offering government grants to support promising students, he said.

He also testified about the publication of a finalized list of Changjiang Scholars that would have been made public after the recipients accepted their full-time positions. Academics on that final list could be assumed to have signed on with their respective universities, he said.

No such list, however, was found during the year Tao was negotiating with Fuzhou. Tiffert suggested the lists had once been accessible but had been “scrubbed” because the Chinese government was aware of scrutiny of the scholars.

Defense attorney Michael Dearington disputed that, saying, “You can’t be confident something was scrubbed that you never knew was there in the first place.”

The defense team also sought to refute documents in which Fuzhou University appeared to be promoting the addition of Tao to its faculty. The university had an incentive to oversell Tao in order to promote itself, they said.

Tao believed Fuzhou was not a top-tier university and contract negotiations indicated he wanted more of a financial commitment than the university offered, Dearington said. In one communication, Tao complained that it was difficult to recruit students to work there.

The prosecution is expected to rest on Monday, after which defense witnesses will be called. It’s not known whether Tao will take the stand.

The case is likely to go to the jury by midweek.

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