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In our opinion: USTAR's troubling audit demands better answers

Published: Thursday, Oct. 24 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR) researchers showcase their most exciting projects and emerging technologies at the 2013 Innovation Fair at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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The Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative was a costly proposition from the outset, costing hundreds of millions of dollars in state revenues. Utahns were told that this expense was justified because of the number of jobs USTAR would create, as well as the benefits it would provide to higher education, most notably by commercializing technologies developed by state universities.

A new legislative audit shows that every single one of those premises was faulty, and, even more troubling, USTAR has misrepresented its supposed successes by a startling degree.

“USTAR’s reported revenues were overstated and inaccurate,” the audit report said, adding that USTAR’s reported return on investment “did not reflect an actual ROI,” and that the actual commercialization of technology “has been limited,” a gross understatement when considering that the only commercialization attributed to USTAR is $33,000 in money reported by Utah State University. That’s a pathetically small sum when compared to the capital invested in producing such a meager return.

Why and how did this happen?

Both legislators and the program’s managers insist that this is incompetence rather than malfeasance. Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart attributed this to a “complete lack of management.” The auditor complains of incomplete records and meeting minutes in “disarray.” USTAR Executive Director Ted McAleer shifted the blame to a “revolving door” of financial managers, stating that his “most critical responsibility” going forward is to “hold a finance manager, my assistant, accountable for working with me.”

That’s all well and good, but it leaves open the question as to why such wildly inaccurate reports were allowed to be filed in the first place, claiming thousands of jobs created and millions of dollars generated that didn’t exist. It defies credulity to assume that no one realized these reports were wrong until the audit brought the discrepancies to light.

State Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, summed up the problem when he said that "[the audit] puts me in a position where I don’t know what to believe when I see a report from USTAR.” The entire state has been put in that identical position. When official USTAR reports are so far out of line with reality, they erode any confidence citizens may still have in their state government.

The diagnosis of the problem is helpful, certainly, but the proposed remedies seem inadequate to the task at hand. A failure of these proportions demands more accountability than just a pledge to try harder to get things right in the future.

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