Kansas professor avoids prison in blow to Trump-era China-related probe

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By Nate Raymond

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Jan 18 (Reuters) – A University of Kansas professor avoided prison on Wednesday for making a false statement related to work he was doing in China in the latest setback for a Trump-era U.S. Department of Justice crackdown on Chinese influence within American academia.

Prosecutors had asked U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson in Kansas City, Kansas, to sentence Feng “Franklin” Tao to 2-1/2 years in prison, even after the judge in September threw out most of his trial conviction for concealing work he did in China.

Robinson instead sentenced the chemical engineering professor to time served with no fine or restitution. Peter Zeidenberg, his lawyer, in an email said Tao was “immensely relieved by the sentence.”

Tao, who was indicted in 2019, was among about two dozen academics who were charged as part of the “China Initiative,” which launched in 2018 during former Republican President Donald Trump’s era and aimed to counter suspected Chinese economic espionage and research theft.

Tao, 51, has denied wrongdoing, and Zeidenberg said he plans to appeal his conviction on the one remaining count in the case for failing to disclose his affiliation with a Chinese university on a form submitted to the University of Kansas.

The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.

The Justice Department under Democratic President Joe Biden in February 2022 ended the China Initiative following several failed prosecutions and criticism that it chilled research and fueled bias against Asians, though it said it would continue pursuing cases over national security threats posed by China.

Prosecutors said Tao, who worked on renewable energy projects, concealed his affiliation with Fuzhou University in China from the University of Kansas and two federal agencies that provided grant funding for the professor’s research.

A jury in April convicted him of four of the eight counts against him. But Robinson in September overturned three wire fraud convictions, citing a lack of evidence. (Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Leslie Adler)

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