Two research centers at Utah State University are undergoing a legislative audit at the request of the head of the Utah Taxpayers Association.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Salt Lake, who leads the taxpayer advocacy group, asked Senate leaders to pursue the review following complaints by a former employee of a foundation connected with the research.The centers targeted include the National Center for Design of Molecular Function, directed by USU professor Linda Powers, and the Center for Developmental and Molecular Biology, headed by assistant professor Ken White.
Researchers there are trying to facilitate cell experimentation and develop new methods of environmental testing and cleanup.
Jeffrey Cohen, a former employee of the nonprofit Spendlove Research Foundation in Logan, contacted Stephenson with the allegations of improper funding and research practices.
Cohen was employed by Rex Spendlove, founder of Spendlove Research Foundation, who resigned from the centers' advisory council in June. Two of Spend-love's companies, including Spendlove Research and Hyclone Laboratories, work directly with the USU centers being audited.
Cohen has acknowledged that he and Spendlove are not on the best of terms but said his report of complaints does not stem from their differences.
"There is definitely a war between me and him," he said. The two men are involved in a lawsuit over payments on a house occupied by Cohen.
Stephenson said his information has been collected from "multiple sources," not just Cohen.
"I don't consider the issues under investigation to be small issues . . . I just hope that the auditors can get to the bottom of it and we can get the issue behind us," Stephenson said.
Mike Alder, director of the state-funded Centers of Excellence, which launched the USU labs, said the investigation is the focus of "very hollow allegations.
"I've always tried to run the program so that it would withstand questioning at any time," he said. "Whenever public funds are used, people are going to question whether that's a good use of funds and that's appropriate."
Powers' center, which was designated a national center of excellence by the National Institute of Health, has received $820,000, according to program records.
The other center run by White received $103,400 in state funds last year and was granted an additional $107,480 next June, contingent on a mid-year review of the program.
Auditors were instructed to begin their investigation May 19.