Possible conflict of interest arises in request for funding

Coralie Carlson

A $2.6 million University request for swine research facilities came under attack Thursday as a rural county clerk alleged a conflict of interest.
University professor Robert Morrison invested four years ago in Canadian Connection Swine Facilities, a large-scale pig farm. In the past, the operation has used University research in attempts to expand its business, which Pope County (Minn.) Clerk and Zoning Administrator Nancy Barsness said is improper.
“Until they answer these very disturbing conflict of interest questions, we don’t need to fund anymore swine research with tax dollars,” Barsness said after testimony to the House Capital Investment Committee.
Morrison, director of the University’s Swine Center, is one of three investors in Canadian Connection Swine Facilities. The company owns a $240,000 confinement feedlot with two barns on 10 acres of land in Pope County. Feedlots are large confinements for animals to be fed and fattened in one site.
“If it’s true that a faculty member at the University is involved in this sort of research, it seems like a conflict of interest,” said Rep. Steve Trimble, DFL-St. Paul.
Morrison said he felt “overwhelmed” by the accusations, and said Canadian Connection is a family farm part-owned by his wife’s cousin.
Canadian Connection sued New Prairie Township near Morris, Minn., twice after being turned down for expansion permits. The company lost both suits. During the last lawsuit in 1996, it referenced a University study that found an increase in property values next to feedlots.
Residents living near feedlots disagree, and disapprove of the facilities because of lagoons, large open sewage areas with offensive odors, Barsness said. She said she lives three miles from a Canadian Connection lagoon and has left her house many times because of the stench.
Because Morrison is a University professor, Barsness said use of the study might be a conflict of interest. Morrison denies such assertions, saying he was not involved with this particular study. He has also signed forms making his position official.
University attorneys have already reviewed the research information and determined there was no wrongdoing, said David Thawley, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine.
“With all the information we have at hand, there is no conflict of interest,” Thawley said.
Questions also arose regarding the Pork Producers of Minnesota, which joined Canadian Connection in its lawsuit. The pork manufacturer association has involvement in funding University research, said Mike Martin, dean of the College of Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Sciences.
In the past few years, Morrison said his research has involved food safety and personality traits of successful swine managers.
The committee is looking for projects to cut from the University’s bonding request and these allegations aroused concerns from legislators.
Likewise, school officials said they worry about the implications on the budget.
“I’m very concerned because I think with the information I have available to me at this time, the accusations seem to be unfair,” Thawley said.
Thawley said a report on Morrison’s situation would be completed today and all information that would not violate Morrison’s legal rights would be released to the public. Thawley did not specify what types of information could be withheld.