SALT LAKE CITY — A large donation to the University of Utah has caught the attention of Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, who has asked the Office of the Legislative Auditor General to gather information to determine whether an audit is needed.
The donation in question is a $12 million gift from Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire physician whose charitable efforts were questioned for their ethics last month by STAT News, a health news site. The donation was made in September 2014.
Greg Hartley, chief of staff for Hughes, confirmed that Hughes is worried about the appropriateness of that donation.
"He's asked legislative auditors to do some initial analysis and fact finding to see if an audit needs to happen," Hartley said.
Hughes is also worried about the sudden firing of Huntsman Cancer Institute CEO Mary Beckerle last week, according to Hartley. Beckerle was reinstated to her position Tuesday following an outcry from staff, multiple protests on campus and stinging criticisms of the university by the facility's namesake and founder, Jon Huntsman Sr.
Chris Nelson, communications director at the U., said the legislative audit staff has been in touch with university administrators this week about an "audit survey," in which they will be collecting preliminary information about Soon-Shiong's donation.
He said administrators "stand by the use of the donation" and "stand by receiving the donation."
"We wouldn't take a donation if we didn't think it was going to be an ethical (part of our) funds," Nelson said.
He added that the U. is happy to comply with any requests from auditors.
"We welcome the state Legislature (doing) this; we're a state entity," Nelson said.
The spokesman said he spoke with administrators and was unaware of any initial audit survey looking into Beckerle's firing.
Utah State Auditor John Dougall said he has not so far received any information that would trigger an audit from his office, and he would refrain from conducting a duplicate inquiry if legislative auditors find enough to launch a more thorough probe of their own.
The STAT News story cited the large gift to the University of Utah as an example of Soon-Shiong donating money with hyper-specific stipulations allegedly ensuring that it funnels back through one of his own business enterprises.
The report quoted one tax lawyer who believes Soon-Shiong was "laundering money through the University of Utah" by making it unreasonably difficult for anyone other than NantHealth, which is owned by Soon-Shiong, to qualify for using the gifted funds to complete the genetic research study that was the stated purpose of the donation.
The story also cited other lawyers who said his practices are at least worth questioning.
The article prompted additional coverage from national magazines and from the L.A. Times, which quoted Soon-Shiong calling the STAT article "maliciously false."
Huntsman last week questioned the relationship between Soon-Shiong and Vivian Lee, the U.'s senior vice president whom he severely criticized for firing Beckerle, for Lee's work in accepting his donation on behalf of the university.
"She's a very controversial person that clearly needs to be fired," Huntsman said of Lee at the time, though he later backed off of that demand after Beckerle was reinstated and an agreement was reached that she will no longer be required to report to Lee.
Julie Kiefer, science communications manager for University of Utah Health Care, told the Deseret News that, to the best of her knowledge, a meeting between Lee and Soon-Shiong helped kickstart the philanthropist's donation to the U.
"There was an alumni from the university who was living in Southern California and knew Patrick Soon-Shiong. And Vivian Lee was out there for another reason and this alumni thought it might be useful to get these two together because they had similar interests," Kiefer said. "So the introduction was made and they just kind of took off from there."
Asked about what role Lee may have played in ultimately accepting Soon-Shiong's donation, Kiefer said she wasn't privy to that information.
"I don't know the specifics of that connection," she said.
Kiefer confirmed that NantHealth was the only organization that met the "specific requirements" stipulated in $10 million of Soon-Shiong's donation that she said was intended for a "project to investigate genetic risk factors (of) about 25 different conditions."
"They were very high standards, very state of the art standards," Kiefer said. "NantHealth facilities were the only facilities that could really meet the specifications within the turnaround time that they required for the project."
Kiefer said "one or two other institutions" would have qualified for the project, but were too backed up with other projects to complete the research in the requested time frame.
The other $2 million of Soon-Shiong's donation were for non-research related costs at the university, according to Nelson.
Kiefer lauded the accomplishments brought by the donation and indicated Soon-Shiong was straightforward in upholding his promise to the U.
"(He) made their commitments, fulfilled their commitments to the university," she said. "Beyond that, (the data) we received was beyond our high expectations — very good data."
The project carried out by NantHealth consisted of collecting "1,000 genomes of people from Utah in an effort to understand the genetic basis of 25 different conditions," including autism, breast cancer and primary births. She said that in February, meaningful findings were released on one of those conditions — ovarian insufficiency — and that more findings stemming from the project are expected to be released soon.
It remained unclear Thursday whether Soon-Shiong's donation was a source of tension at the university between Lee and Beckerle. The U. has refused to say why Lee and U. President David Pershing fired Beckerle via email on April 17.
Kiefer said she was "not aware of any concerns that were voiced" at the U. at the time the donation was finalized and said the Huntsman Cancer Institute itself wasn't connected to the recruiting of Soon-Shiong's donation or directly affected by the study it funded.
"This is separate from the Huntsman Cancer Institute," she said.