Investigators have seized computers and invoices from an Ephraim seed supplier as part of a two-year-old state probe into financial mismanagement at an internationally known Utah research station.
The low-profile investigation is looking at thousands of dollars of bogus billing and accusations of conflict of interest at the Department of Natural Resources' Great Basin Research Center in Ephraim.No charges have been filed and investigators have not determined how many state employees are involved. But the probe has already been blamed for causing the suicide of a retired state biologist and the early retirement of the center's director. Last week, state investigators served a search warrant on Maple Leaf Industries Inc., seizing invoices, computer records and sacks of seeds.
An affidavit supporting the request for the search warrant says investigators have evidence that former state employees of the Great Basin Research Center also in Ephraim, had been manipulating billing orders, forging checks, and making illegal "trades" with Maple Leaf.
Maple Leaf is owned by four brothers, one of whom is Richard Stevens, the former GBRC director.
State investigators also suspect Stevens funneled information to Maple Leaf that allowed the seed supplier to unfairly underbid competitors. For years, GBRC has spent more money on Maple Leaf products than on any other supplier.
Stevens, and possibly others, the affidavit says, could face conflict-of-interest, communications fraud and official misconduct charges.
GBRC is internationally known for its work with indigenous plants and stores and distributes seed for state and federal rangeland restoration projects.
State investigators, according to the affidavit, have determined that since the late 1980s, former GBRC biologist Kent Jorgensen received dozens of checks totaling $138,542 issued to his children for collecting seeds.
"Jorgensen admitted that he had forged the checks made payable to his relatives by endorsing the checks with relatives' names," then cashing them for himself, DNR Investigator William Woody explains in the affidavit.
Jorgensen told Woody his relatives didn't know about the forgery. Last November, Jorgensen shot himself to death in the garage of his Santa Clara retirement home.
"My husband killed himself because of the investigators - because of the hassling," said his wife, Barbara Jorgensen.
She told investigators that her husband sometimes transferred seed from the research station warehouse to Maple Leaf when Maple Leaf was short in filling a customer order. She said when she asked him about giving state seed to Maple Leaf, he told her, "What am I supposed to do with the boss (Stevens) there?"
Maple Leaf's president Lloyd Stevens referred questions to the brothers' lawyer, who did not return calls. DWR spokesman Steve Phillips referred questions about the probe to the Attorney General's Office, whose attorneys also did not return calls.
Assistant DWR director Kevin Conway said that work at the research station will continue.
"It's still an important center to us," Conway said. "We think we have taken the steps to make sure that the place is running efficiently and properly."
Stevens' competitors have long believed that the part-owner of Maple Leaf supplied the company with inside information on upcoming seed purchases.
A study of purchases from February 1994 to October 1996 showed that Maple Leaf won "sealed" bids four times by submitting bids for one cent per pound less than the next lowest bidder.
"The occurrence of such an extraordinary rare bidding circumstance is strong evidence that Maple Leaf had inside information from within GBRC," the affidavit says.
The affidavit alleged other financial improprieties, like Stevens awarding small bids to Maple Leaf in exchange for building supplies, which one witness said was never delivered.
A GBRC researcher told investigators that the center gave Maple Leaf a commonly used seed called mountain rye at no charge. Maple Leaf now cultivates the plant and harvests the seed and has reaped $30,000 selling mountain rye to the research center alone, the affidavit says.
At the request of the investigation team, the State Department of Agriculture recently analyzed the seed Maple Leaf had sold the center. They found that much of the seed was not the variety that Maple Leaf had labeled it and it actually contained large amounts of noxious weed seed, making it worthless to the GBRC, the affidavit said.