HELENA - Montana State University says a federally funded program that drew the governor's skepticism is defunct and no longer receiving money, but Gov. Brian Schweitzer's office said it is not entirely satisfied with the explanation.
MSU provided a briefing on The Joe Skeen Institute for Rangeland Restoration and said it indeed had a partnership with the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks - a claim that Schweitzer first challenged when he discovered the group's Web site.
The governor's office said the MSU explanation still falls short and seems to inflate the importance of the state partnership.
And a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks range coordinator, listed by MSU as being on the institute's advisory committee, said he had nothing to do with spending money and didn't even know the group had a formal name.
Schweitzer first raised the issues Tuesday in a meeting with University System leaders, where he was seeking an updated report on spending on university research. The governor said it took only a few Internet searches and a couple of phone calls to find that the Skeen institute looked suspicious.
Schweitzer, who noticed the program on a list provided by the University System, said the Skeen institute Web site was flimsy and its claim to be a partner with FWP appeared false.
The governor said he is worried that a small portion of research money that goes to programs that don't do hard research - and perhaps are engaged in outreach efforts - could be hiding problems like found a few years ago in a heavily criticized space research center at the University of Montana.
"It's these ones where you go to their Web site and you just can't figure out what it is they do," Schweitzer said. "Those are the ones that make me nervous. In particular, where you find claims that may not be true."
MSU said the Skeen program was a joint effort with New Mexico State University and Texas A&M University, with funding first put in a farm bull by former New Mexico U.S. Rep. Joe Skeen.
But MSU said funding ended in 2006, although there was leftover money to be spent by 2009. A total of $2 million was received by MSU through this year. There are no staff members left in the program, which at MSU was called the Montana Sustainable Rangeland Livestock Task Force.
One of Schweitzer's biggest issues with the program - which appeared on a list of active research programs provided to him by MSU - was that he could not find anyone at FWP working with it, as was claimed on the Web site.
MSU, in a report given to The Associated Press and the governor's office, said FWP range coordinator Mike Frisina was on the advisory committee that last met in 2006 to direct the final spending of grant funds.
But Frisina said in an e-mail Thursday that he attended only a couple of meetings, the most recent two years ago, had nothing to do with spending money and did not even know the group had a formal name.
"We were simply a group that expressed our views and others (I don't know who) made the decisions as to what projects were funded and in what amounts," he said in the e-mail provided by the governor's office. "I was not the member of any institute nor was I on any executive committee that made decisions regarding MSU extension or any of its arms."
The governor's office said the MSU program is still suspicious, especially since it claimed that two meetings with a range coordinator constituted a partnership with the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
The governor's office said the MSU explanation also fails to address why the program, if defunct, appeared on the active list of programs sought by the school and one that was requesting money for 2009.
Schweitzer is pressing the University System to produce an understandable accounting of the research programs that he said was supposed to be delivered in September.
The University System said it expects to have the report by March. The schools said they get about $170 million each year in research money and spend a few hundred thousand dollars a year lobbying Congress for the money.