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UI professor questions money spent in New Mexico

Wed., May 27, 2009, 12:20 p.m.

The University of Idaho is spending nearly $400,000 a year to support three employees in New Mexico without any oversight, an electrical engineering professor at the school says.

“I’ve asked the question of three different university administrators, ’Why do we have an operation in New Mexico, and what are they doing?”’ David Egolf told the Lewiston Tribune. “And I’ve never gotten an answer.”

The money for the work in the Albuquerque office comes from the school’s Center for Advanced Microelectronics and Biomolecular Research, where a 2005 audit turned up possible wrongdoing.

Jack McIver, UI research vice president, said he is scrutinizing the New Mexico operation.

“I’m looking at what they’ve been doing over the last couple of years, and whether that is supportable,” McIver said. “I’ve always had problems in my previous jobs with remote sites.”

He said researchers in Albuquerque work mainly on computer chip designs.

The research center is being investigated by the Idaho attorney general’s office, said Bob Cooper, spokesman for the attorney general. He said he couldn’t comment on an active investigation.

The investigation stems from a 2005 audit that found evidence of possible theft, computer crimes, acceptance of rewards by state employees, and criminal nepotism. The audit also found employees were failing to disclose ownership interests in another chip maker, Concise Logic Inc., based in Albuquerque.

McIver said the university now monitors such public-private partnerships more closely.

Another problem came to light in 2007, when the center’s then-director, Gary Maki, was removed from that job after school records indicated what appeared to be an attempt to discredit a university researcher.

Maki wrote a draft of a letter and sent it to a colleague at NASA with instructions that it be sent back to the school “close to the way it is” so he could take it to then-university President Tim White and use it against the researcher. The center gets grant money from NASA.

The researcher, Kenneth Hass, obtained the letter and an e-mail through Idaho’s open records laws and made them public.

Egolf questions whether the money being sent to New Mexico is well spent considering budget cuts to the school due to the recession.

“I’m very fed up,” Egolf said, adding other faculty members agree with him but are afraid to come forward. “I’m the only person that speaks out. I’m a Vietnam veteran. I’m not afraid of anything.”

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