A former University of Kentucky mining engineering professor pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court in Lexington to purposely defrauding UK and another employer of more than $62,000 by creating fake invoices and double billing for his expenses.
Dongping "Daniel" Tao, 53, agreed to one felony count of wire fraud. He will be sentenced in June by Chief U.S. District Judge Karen Caldwell.
Federal sentencing guidelines, which are not mandatory, call for a minimum of probation and a maximum of 20 years in prison.
As part of a plea agreement, Tao agreed to repay $62,000 to UK and Georgia Pacific, one of the private companies he worked for while at UK.
He also admitted he used grant money intended for research at UK for his consulting business instead.
As part of his bond agreement, Tao will turn over his passport to the courts and request permission to continue his frequent travel to China, his attorney said.
"Dr. Tao has accepted responsibility for his mistake, and he intends to pay the money back," attorney Kent Westberry said after Tao's hearing Thursday. "He has and will continue to be a productive citizen. He just wants to get on with his life."
Tao answered yes and no to the judge's questions but made no further comment.
Since Tao left UK in December 2013, he has been based in Houston, working for SNF FloMin, a mining technology company.
He resigned from UK after two internal investigations found that from 2008 to 2013, Tao allegedly created fake invoices totaling more than $62,000 for travel, hotels and meals. He allegedly billed the university and consulting clients for the same expenses.
The university investigations also found that he routinely required graduate students to work on his private consulting activities without pay.
Although internal audits turned up Tao's activities, UK officials said they have tightened controls on billing and outside consulting in the College of Engineering.
"We are pleased that this issue has been resolved and we are appreciative of the cooperation demonstrated throughout by the U.S. Attorney's office and other legal authorities," said UK spokesman Jay Blanton. "The vast majority of our employees act appropriately in everything that they do. We must be — and we are — vigilant about ensuring that we have a culture of compliance, ethics and accountability at every level."
According to UK records, Tao received an undergraduate degree from Beijing University of Science and Technology and a master's degree in minerals processing engineering from China University of Mining and Technology in Xuzhou. In 1994, he received a doctorate in mining engineering from Virginia Tech, with a dissertation on the floatability of pyrite in coal flotation.
In 1996, Tao responded to an advertisement for a research associate to work at UK's Center for Applied Energy Research, and two years later he was made an assistant professor in the mining engineering department.
By 2008, Tao had started to work more heavily with outside energy companies. Under UK rules, faculty must get permission before working for private companies, and they must not devote more than 20 percent of their time to those endeavors.
UK officials said Tao had clearly done more outside consulting than was considered permissible.