When ISU purchased the Ballard Medical Building in 2011 for $3.6 million dollars with plans of turning it into the Research Innovation in Science and Engineering, or RISE, Complex, university officials lauded it as the first step in creating a renowned research center.
The praise for RISE, now renamed as the Eames Advanced Technical Education and Innovations Complex, kept coming despite murmurs that perhaps the investment was not as sound as it seemed. RISE was up and running quickly, however, receiving a plethora of grants to jumpstart the research, and Dr. Eric Burgett was appointed as director.
Still, there were murmurs. Some critics, such as Martin Hackworth, a former ISU faculty member and columnist for the Idaho State Journal, came closer to shouting. Hackworth published a column titled “Rise or Fall?” in March of 2015 questioning the research being done at RISE and Burgett’s qualifications as director.
A year and a half later, on Oct. 9 of 2016, Hackworth published a follow-up column, stating that, in his opinion, RISE was officially a failure. This was after reports of dozens of employees being laid off and years of minimal information being released about the research being done at the complex. But perhaps most importantly, it was a few weeks after Burgett was removed from his position as director and returned to his position in the faculty before resigning from the university completely the very next day.
In his scathing follow-up, Hackworth stated he was confident that an investigation into the RISE Complex would reveal “practices that at the very least push the boundaries of decorum for such an enterprise on several fronts” and additionally called on President Arthur Vailas for an independent audit. He didn’t know at the time that one was already being conducted.
Dr. Neels Van der Schyf, Vice President for Research, had requested an audit on Sept. 15 of 2016 after discovering, according to the university, “financial discrepancies related to the spending of research and contract funds.”
The findings of the first auditor’s report were released after a press conference held by the university on July 31 of this year. The official documents were then released to the public after Mikle Ellis, an associate professor at ISU, filed a Freedom of Information Act request.
The first report revealed, in a detailed 98 pages, Burgett’s conflict of interest with one of the companies RISE was collaborating with, ScanTech Sciences, Inc, as well as his misuse of university funds and federal grant money and his negligence with student payment– the report revealed two ISU students were never fully paid for their work at the complex.
More recently, a second report has been released. Burgett is yet again involved, but more the most prominent person in this report is the former University Business Officer for the RISE Complex, Lynn Roberts. This latest report details Roberts’ misuse of university funds in order to furnish a home she leased from her father-in-law and then rented to employees of NuMat, Inc, a private company that signed a technology development and licensing agreement with ISU in June 2015.
Roberts spent over $10,000 on home furnishings for the house and, when asked about the purchases by Internal Audit Director Reese Jensen, stated they had been purchased for use in the RISE Complex mezzanine, for employees to rest when working extremely long hours.
It is also mentioned in this report that some time in the summer of 2016, Burgett and his family moved into the NuMat house. When asked about this, Roberts said she had told Burgett he could not move in but told him he could store some items in the garage.
Roberts is no longer employed at ISU, although it is unclear whether she resigned or was terminated, and the university has stated they do not comment on personnel matters.
After the first report was released at the end of July, the university stated Idaho state laws had been violated, but Steve Herzog, the Bannock County prosecutor, said no charges were being filed against anyone involved. As of the release of this new report, Herzog said Roberts has been charged with grand theft, but he believes it to be an incident unrelated to the issues of the RISE Complex.
Although specific administrators would not meet for an interview, ISU released an official statement via email in response to questions asked by the Bengal. When asked if they believed there was anything that could have been done to prevent the events at RISE from occurring, they stated that, “the university expects information – including conflict of interest declarations – that are being forwarded by the respective units to be accurate and honest. It was after the Office for Research conducted a secondary review that inconsistencies were discovered.”
They also stated that the university has assembled a task force to look at existing policies and procedures and implemented mandatory conflict of interest training for all employees and “do its best to encourage and expect compliance to policies by all employees.”
But for some, like Hackworth, it seems too little, too late. Hackworth, however, is confident that a reckoning is on the horizon.
“In the fullness of time, heads will roll over RISE,” he said. “And it’s not going to be just Eric Burgett’s.”