Authorities: Multiple federal agencies investigating ISU’s former RISE Complex
POCATELLO — Nearly a year after Idaho State University made the shocking announcement that an internal audit had uncovered alleged illegal activity at the school’s former Research and Innovation in Science and Engineering Complex, Bannock County authorities have confirmed that multiple federal agencies are investigating those allegations.
Despite the federal investigations, ISU admitted Thursday that the school’s Vice President for University Advancement Kent Tingey “misspoke” when announcing the alleged illegal activity being committed at the facility, also known as the RISE Complex. When Tingey announced the findings of the internal audit during a press conference on July 31 of last year, he said the audit indicated “there were violations of Idaho state law.”
ISU spokesman Stuart Summers told the Journal that it’s not ISU’s policy to say that a crime has been committed but to rather allow law enforcement to determine whether an audit has revealed illegal activity.
Tingey told the Journal Thursday that his misstep was announcing the audit revealed violations of state law.
Bannock County Prosecutor Steve Herzog previously told the Journal that he believed the way ISU handled announcing the audit’s findings was odd because it wasn’t until several weeks after the press conference that ISU finally provided Pocatello police with the internal audit. ISU disagrees, saying the audit’s findings were provided to police in a timely manner.
After receiving the internal audit, police then turned over a formal report about the audit to the Bannock County Prosecutor’s Office, which in turn contacted the FBI, U.S. Department of Energy and other federal agencies about the matter.
Those federal agencies are now investigating what transpired at the RISE Complex, Bannock County authorities said.
To date, the only person criminally charged as a result of the internal audit is 58-year-old Betty Lynn Roberts, ISU’s former university business officer at the RISE Complex.
Bannock County authorities said that Roberts has fled to Canada rather than face the criminal charge against her, but law enforcement is attempting to locate and arrest her so she can be extradited back to the U.S.
Roberts’ family in Pocatello contends that she’s innocent and is being falsely blamed for all the problems at the RISE Complex.
Roberts has been charged with one count of felony misuse of public funds by a public officer or employee. Though her criminal case remains sealed under judicial order, authorities allege that Roberts embezzled over $10,000 from ISU over a period spanning more than a year.
Authorities say that Roberts illegally used an ISU credit card to purchase home furnishings placed in a house leased by her and owned by her father-in-law, Steve Roberts Sr., of Pocatello, that she rented to officials with the Mississippi-based NuMat Inc. — a company that collaborated with former RISE Director Eric Burgett during his research at the RISE Complex.
Burgett announced his resignation from ISU on Sept. 16, 2016 — the day after ISU announced it was conducting an internal audit of the RISE Complex. Burgett could not be reached for comment for this story.
A Freedom of Information Act request filed last year by ISU engineering professor Mikle Ellis prompted ISU to publicly announce the findings of the internal audit that was conducted by ISU Director of Internal Audit Reese Jensen — who reports to the State Board of Education’s Audit Committee. Cornelis Van der Schyf, ISU’s vice president for research and dean of the graduate school, requested that the RISE Complex be audited because of various financial discrepancies he uncovered concerning the facility.
During Tingey’s press conference last year, he said, “Evidence emerged that raised concerns regarding the management of the RISE Complex under then Director Dr. Eric Burgett.”
In addition to alleging violations of state law, Tingey said about the RISE Complex, “The reports that have been completed indicate that there were violations of ... university policies and procedures regarding the use of public funds and conflicts of interest.”
The RISE internal audit ISU released last year included a 76-page document detailing the university’s alleged conflict of interest concerns regarding Burgett and a 22-page document provided by ISU with allegations about Burgett’s use of university funds at the RISE.
Both ISU documents allege Burgett formed close relationships with industry partners of the RISE Complex, including NuMat Inc., prior to his employment at ISU, which he and the industry partners benefited financially from and were relationships Burgett never disclosed to ISU.
ISU officials said Betty Roberts was renting out her father-in-law’s house to NuMat officials for $2,500 per month, or twice the amount she was paying Steve Roberts Sr. to lease the home.
Steve Roberts Sr. told the Journal on Thursday that he was unaware Betty Roberts had doubled the rent, adding that he believes his daughter-in-law used the additional rent money to purchase the home furnishings.
The chances Betty Roberts personally benefited from purchasing the furniture and renting the home to NuMat Inc. are highly unlikely, Steve Roberts Sr. added.
“I think she was told to purchase that furniture,” Steve Roberts Sr. said. “My lease agreement was directly through (Betty Roberts) because I knew her and trusted her. I can’t see how she ever misused a dime. In all the years I knew (Betty Roberts) I did not know her to take advantage of anyone — friend, family or enemy.”
Following the criminal charge being filed against Betty Roberts, ISU would not confirm whether she resigned or was fired because the university does not comment on personnel issues, Summers said.
Betty’s husband Steve Roberts Jr. of Pocatello confirmed that she fled to Canada shortly before Bannock County authorities issued a warrant for her arrest in December 2017.
Steve Roberts Jr. told the Journal on Thursday that he first learned of Betty Roberts’ felony arrest warrant last December, two weeks after she left the U.S.
“She had breast cancer and then her dad got sick, so she went home to Canada for six months to help her dad pass,” Steve Roberts Jr. said. “She came back for four months, went through the house and took what she wanted and left.”
Then the arrest warrant was filed by the Bannock County Prosecutor’s Office.
Steve Roberts Jr. said that since his wife left for Canada, two agents with the U.S. Department of Energy have visited him at his Pocatello residence seeking a method of communication with Betty Roberts.
Steve Roberts Jr. said, “I told them trying to contact her has been impossible. I don’t have an address or phone number for her and when I did try to send mail to a former address it was returned to me.”
The U.S. Department of Energy did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails from the Journal regarding Betty Roberts and the RISE Complex, and Nora Scheland, a spokeswoman for the FBI, said it is the agency’s policy to neither confirm nor deny the existence of any FBI investigation. When questioned about the investigations by the federal agencies into the RISE Complex, Summers said, “If an investigation is currently ongoing involving a federal agency, that federal agency would be covered by rules of confidentiality.”
Steve Roberts Jr. called the criminal charge filed against his wife a “malicious case of prosecution,” adding that Betty Roberts’ “name is getting dragged through the mud.”
He said that Betty Roberts told ISU officials what was going on at the RISE Complex and two days later everything in her office was confiscated.
Steve Roberts Jr. said. “They took everything — computers, laptops and boxed up all her belongings giving her no possible way to defend herself.”
Steve Roberts Jr. said he fears for his wife’s safety considering he has not seen or heard from her in several months.
“I feel like she has been prosecuted wrongly,” he said. “I know this woman from 18 years of marriage. I’m an Eagle Scout and an Army officer and I have a very high code of ethics. But if there is one thing I know in this world it’s that (Betty) Lynn Roberts has better ethics than me.”
He added, “She is not a thief.”
Steve Roberts Jr. was reluctant to speak to the Journal on Thursday, saying that since the local media has reported on the criminal charge filed against his wife both his home and his vehicles have been vandalized.
“My car got egged and someone took mayonnaise, put it on white bread and stuck it to my house during the winter,” Steve Roberts Jr. said. “I didn’t have anything to do with this and I’m really unhappy because I really love my wife and I don’t want people to keep saying bad things about her because they’re just not true.”
He continued, “There is not one person in our circle of friends who believes any of this. We are givers and I feel like the last two years of my life have just been hell because of all this.”
If convicted of felony misuse of public funds, Betty Roberts faces a maximum penalty of a $10,000 fine and 14 years in state prison. The charge carries a one-year minimum prison sentence. Authorities said Betty Roberts would also have to pay restitution of more than $10,000 to ISU.
About a month before ISU released its internal audit of the RISE Complex, the university changed the name of the facility to the William M. and Karin A. Eames Advanced Technical Education and Innovations Complex. The massive building now houses ISU College of Technology programs.