SALT LAKE CITY — A state legislative leader expressed frustration Wednesday over lingering questions about a $12 million gift to the University of Utah by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire physician.
Shortly after the university received first payments of the gift in 2014 to be used to further understanding of the genetic basis of 25 different conditions, Soon-Shiong asked that his company, NantHealth, be the sole provider of the gene sequencing for the Heritage 1K project.
A legislative audit concluded that the university did not follow state procurement laws when awarding a $10 million contract to NantHealth to sequence 1,372 genome samples from the Utah Population Database instead of seeking competitive bids.
Companies contacted by auditors reported that they could have conducted the same work at a lesser price, although it is unclear whether the work could have been completed in the same time frame.
As members of the Utah Legislature's Education Interim Committee heard a report on the audit Wednesday, House Majority Whip Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said he has no more understanding about how the gift was handled than the first time he had reviewed the audit in meeting with legislative leaders.
"This is pretty darned frustrating. This is a couple different meetings … in which no one has answers as to how this happened. You're general counsel to the university, and you said today you weren't involved, it was one of the colleagues in your office, but I guess the buck stops with you," Gibson said, addressing U. general counsel Liz Winter.
Had Soon-Shiong requested the U. use of his company for the gene sequencing when the gift was given, that would have been permissible under state law, Winter said.
Gibson said it is “unfathomable to me” that the state procurement process wasn’t followed.
“It goes to a deeper issue in terms of procurement at the university. What other things are being done the same way? That's not a question. It's just a comment and thought of mine,” he said.
Winter agreed that many issues could have been avoided had the University of Utah involved the institution’s purchasing department from the start.
She said she has personally conducted training with top-level university officials, vice presidents and deans regarding the requirements of state procurement process and regulation to head off problems in the future.
Gibson said he and other members of the Legislature’s Audit Subcommittee are left in the position where “we really don’t have answers."
"It was then. We really don’t know why. Those people are gone,” he said.
At the height of the conflict between the university and the Huntsman Cancer Foundation this spring, Huntsman Cancer Institute benefactor Jon M. Huntsman Sr. questioned Dr. Vivian Lee's part in accepting Soon-Shiong's donation on behalf of the university.
At the time, Huntsman was highly critical of Lee, then the U.’s senior vice president of health sciences, for her role in terminating Huntsman Cancer Institute CEO Mary Beckerle. Beckerle was quickly reinstated after public outcry by staff and community members.
Lee stepped down from her administrative positions and U. President David Pershing announced he had moved up the timeline of his planned retirement.Comment on this story
The audit noted that "public scrutiny regarding the validity of the process led to this audit."
The audit refers to one article that "accused the University of Utah of essentially laundering funds for the donor's company." Auditors collected 11 articles that questioned the validity of this process, the document states.
In other news coverage, including a Los Angeles Times story, Soon-Shiong said reports that his research foundations made grants that benefited his for-profit entities are "maliciously false."