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Research center cleared by state

Sun., May 11, 2008

The Idaho attorney general’s office has concluded that researchers at a University of Idaho center in Post Falls broke no state laws in blending the interests of the university and two private companies that benefited the researchers.

But investigators with the space agency NASA, which provides a large share of funding for the Center for Advanced Microelectronics and Biomolecular Research, are still probing how the center’s officials handled federal grants over the years, according to an attorney involved in the case.

In the meantime, the UI has reorganized its staff at the center, bringing in a new director and allowing the former director, Gary Maki, to focus on leading the research. And grants coming to the center are booming, said UI Provost Doug Baker – CAMBR has attracted about $4.4 million in the last few months for research into cancer detection, and low-energy electronics for military use and spaceflight.

“We’re focused on doing good science, and they’re doing a great job,” Baker said.

CAMBR and Maki were the subject of a university audit in 2005 that found the center’s officials deliberately and improperly used university resources to “further private business interests” – namely, two businesses formed by CAMBR researchers and run in close alignment with the center.

The audit concluded company work was done on university time, university employees had a profit-sharing arrangement with one company and university resources were used for company business, such as testing products. The audit said the conflicts violated university policy and possibly state law.

Defenders of the center have argued that it handled the relationships with companies appropriately and such conflicts of interest are a natural part of the modern research environment, with universities pushing scientists to transfer research into the marketplace. The conflicts are managed by careful disclosure and oversight, and CAMBR supporters say that happened in this case, disputing the auditor’s conclusions.

CAMBR researches computer chips and microprocessors that routinely go into space on major projects like the Hubble Space Telescope. The center has brought in more than $17 million in grants since setting up in Post Falls in 2002.

A former researcher at the center and former CAMBR staffer have sued the UI, saying they were punished for raising questions about conflicts of interest.

The Idaho attorney general’s office opened a criminal investigation into the audit findings in 2006. Officials there would not comment on the case this week.

However, attorney Christine Weaver, who represents Kenneth and Martha Hass in their lawsuit against the UI, said Tuesday that she was notified in March by the attorney general’s office that it had concluded its investigation and decided there was no violation of Idaho law.

“However, our investigation continues as an adjunct to the federal investigation that is still ongoing,” according to an e-mail from an attorney in the office to Weaver. “Information developed during the state’s criminal investigation has been forwarded to federal authorities who are investigating other issues related to the federal funding aspect of CAMBR.”

Other sources have confirmed being told the same thing by officials within the office.

Weaver said the federal agency investigating the situation is NASA’s Office of the Inspector General. Messages left with the agency’s office were not returned this week.

Baker said the UI has not been notified of the status of the state investigation, and that he wasn’t aware of any federal inquiry into CAMBR.

Weaver said she and her clients were interviewed for both the state and NASA investigations more than a year ago. She said NASA investigators asked questions about how finances were directed between the university operation and the businesses.

“It all had to do with how Maki’s handling the money and whether things were benefiting his private companies rather than NASA,” she said.

Weaver said they were not asked about a letter sent to NASA by Maki after Hass began cooperating with the UI auditor. The letter raised questions about whether Hass had breached national security or provided sensitive information to “unauthorized sources” or “foreign agents.”

Maki sent the letter to a NASA official with a long-standing relationship with CAMBR and asked her to sign and represent the letter as her own “close to the way it is,” according to records filed in the lawsuit. He said he wanted to take the letter to UI President Tim White.

Others affiliated with CAMBR have accused Hass of spying on Maki’s computer and accessing sensitive information on center computers in the course of the audit – accusations he has denied.

Asked about those accusations Thursday, Baker said he couldn’t speak about the case in detail because of personnel issues, but the UI had concluded the audit was conducted appropriately.

“Things that were identified in that audit … were appropriately investigated and have been addressed,” he said. “We took that audit seriously.”

Baker said recent grants received at CAMBR include a federal grant of $2.3 million to help develop low-power electronics for military uses in combat and a $1.3 million award for electronics for a NASA mission to study weather patterns and provide continuous climate data.

Hass has left CAMBR and been hired as a professor in Moscow. The lawsuit filed by him and his wife – a former staffer at CAMBR – is expected to be scheduled for trial soon, Weaver said.


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