Gov. Norm Bangerter will try to persuade the federal government to delay collecting Medicaid money that may have been stolen from the embattled Timpanogos Mental Health Center.

The governor agreed Thursday to help after the center's new director and three Utah County commissioners said they have no way of raising the $1.7 million in Medicaid funds recent audits say was stolen.Don Muller, the center's new executive director, worries the government will begin withholding Medicaid payments to the center until it feels it has recovered the lost money.

"Timpanogos would have to close its doors," he said.

Bangerter said he would help delay the federal government until courts decide whether former top administrators at the center are guilty and whether they should be fined.

The county has until March 15 to respond to state Health Department audits that claim Medicaid funds were misused by former Timpanogos administrators during 1986 and 1987.

Muller and three Utah County commissioners met with Bangerter on Thursday to ask for help. They said new evidences of questionable practices at the facility constantly are being found.

The federal government is apparently treating the missing money as a loss without taking into account the fact fraud may have been committed, said Mark Jones, a member of Bangerter's staff.

The Timpanogos Mental Health Authority, which administers the center, cannot afford the losses, he said.

The apparent abuses, totaling about $3.5 million, were uncovered in a legislative audit released in April. Three top administrators at the center - former Executive Director Glen R. Brown, former specialty programs director Carl V. Smith and former business manager Craig W. Stephens - have been charged with a combined 117 counts relating to the reported thefts and abuses, including the use of company credit cards for personal vacations.

Since then, the center has filed several lawsuits in efforts to recover money.

Muller, who became the center's director last summer, said the scandal has hurt many employees who were innocent of wrongdoings.

"Many had trouble getting credit for a while because they worked there," he said. "But we're turning that around now."

Muller said employees have a greater workload than before the scandal. The center hopes eventually to hire more licensed employees, he said.

Utah County commissioners said the center's problems will not be repeated.

"We think we've got a handle on it," said Commissioner Malcolm Beck.