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Washakie Renewable Energy, the company that has already paid a fine for misusing a government biofuels program and was the subject of a federal raid earlier this year, gave the University of Utah $218,246 over five years, according to university records.
The money went to the university's College of Engineering, where one of Washakie's founders, Jacob Kingston, received bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees.
The majority of the money was in donations for scholarships for mechanical and chemical engineering students.
The company also has paid the U. about $100,000 to conduct research to benefit Washakie, including a feasibility study for wind and solar power generation on a shrimp farm in Belize.
That study is still underway. A researcher at the College of Engineering is sending Washakie regular reports based on the meteorology data transmitted from the shrimp farm to his office in Salt Lake City.
Marilyn Davies, director of development for College of Engineering, said the relationship between the college and Washakie is a common one. Lots of alumni give, she said, and so do companies that want to support students and recruit them as employees one day.
"There was nothing unusual, suspicious or in any way remarkable about [Washakie's] interactions with us relative to our relationships with other companies," said Davies, who added that vetting the business further would have been unusual.
"I would hate to even guess the fines that have been levied at other companies" that have donated to the engineering college, she said. Davies said about 60 corporations donated to the college last year.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes in February placed in escrow $50,985 in campaign contributions from Washakie and the Kingston family until more was learned about the federal investigation. Davies said the U. has no similar plans. The donations the last of which arrived in May of last year have been spent, Davies said.
Washakie, which is supposed to be manufacturing biofuels at its plant near Interstate 15 and the Idaho line, is operated by members of the Kingston polygamous group, also known as the Davis County Cooperative and the Latter Day Church of Christ. In 2015, Washakie agreed to pay a $3 million fine for collecting tax credits for manufacturing fuel out of products like soybeans and cornstalks, when the company was really purchasing fuel elsewhere.
Agents from the Environmental Protection Agency, which administers the biofuel program, as well as the IRS and the FBI, on Feb. 10 served search warrants at Salt Lake County offices belonging to Washakie and other businesses affiliated with the Kingston group. The federal agencies have not specified what they are investigating. No one has been arrested or charged with crimes related to the raid.
F. Mark Hansen, an attorney for the Davis County Cooperative Society, said Thursday he has heard no more about the searches and no investigators have asked to speak to his clients.
Hansen does not represent Washakie. Messages left with the company were not returned.
U of U CoE faculty with Jacob Kingston, CEO of WRE and Steve Miller, Pres. of Miller Sports Properties @UtahCoE pic.twitter.com/k74rcpLGTx— WRE Group (@WREGroup) April 9, 2014
Jacob Kingston, now 39 years old, started at the U. in 1995, according to his LinkedIn profile. Engineering college faculty and staff said they got to know Kingston when he was pursuing his doctoral degree in mechanical engineering. Like any graduate student, he aided professors in their research and helped teach undergraduate classes, they said.
"He was interested in working on energy-related problems," said Eric Eddings, the college's associate dean for research and Kingston's Ph.D. adviser. "He would dig in and do what he needed to do."
Eddings said he knew Kingston was married and had children, but didn't probe him about his family.
"I didn't want to pry too much," Eddings said. "He was a good student and did good work."
For his dissertation, Kingston researched the aerodynamics of wood chips as fed into stoker-fired boilers. Kingston also told people he was interested in fuels and biofuels; he assisted Eddings, a chemical engineer, in studying wood combustion as a renewable energy source.
Jacob Kingston completed his doctoral degree in mechanical engineering in 2007, according to his LinkedIn profile and his dissertation, which is on file at the U. library. His wife Sally attended Jacob Kingston's defense of his dissertation. Also that year, he and his brother Isaiah began Washakie.
The company made its first scholarship donation, $20,000, on Dec. 8, 2010, according to records The Tribune obtained through a public records request.
Washakie and the university created the Kingston Energy Scholarship Fund as an account for the scholarships. Students who received the scholarships, as well as engineering faculty, posed for photos with Kingston and a giant check at Utah Jazz games. Washakie and a related company called United Fuel Supply have been big advertisers inside what is now called Vivint Smart Home Arena. The university promoted the donations in news releases.
In November 2011, Sally Kingston signed a contract on behalf of Washakie to pay the U. almost $75,000 for Eddings, a chemical engineer, to conduct research. Eddings was looking for an economical way to convert wood into biofuel. He didn't find it during the Washakie study, but is continuing the research with federal funding, he said Thursday.
Washakie has paid the U. about $28,000 for the research at the Paradise Shrimp Ranch on Belize's Caribbean coast. Neither Washakie nor the Davis County Cooperative, it appears, owns the ranch. Rather, the ranch's owner has partnered with Washakie to determine if it is economical to add wind or solar power to the ranch's energy supply.
Eric Pardyjak, a professor of mechanical engineering at the U. who was on the panel that heard Jacob Kingston defend his dissertation, said towers standing 60 meters tall were erected on the ranch. The towers are collecting wind and solar data and transmitting it. A doctoral student is writing his dissertation, in part, on the experiment.
The experiment will be completed this year. Pardyjak and his Ph.D. student plan to submit an academic paper about the project this summer to scientific journals.