When Jared Burian died after a work-related accident on June 5, his family was devastated. They never would have imagined that his job as a Golden Valley County weed control officer would lead to him being killed in a tragic ATV rollover.
But as Patti Burian and Jared’s family grieved over the senseless loss of their husband and loved one, they became determined to have his memory live on, to stand for something.
As condolences and well wishes poured in, the family decided that they would start a college scholarship fund in Jared’s name.
“He was only 32 years old. He was an amazing person,” Patti Burian said of her late husband. “We did it in his memory.”
When the family published Jared’s obituary, they asked for people to donate money to the Jared Burian Memorial Scholarship Fund that would go to a Dickinson State University student from western North Dakota who was seeking a degree in agriculture or biology.
Jared and Patti are both alumni from Dickinson State. He graduated in 2006, she in 2012. The family couldn’t think of a better way to honor Jared than helping to fund the education of a student at his alma mater.
They met with the now-departed DSU Foundation CEO Kevin Thompson in June to set up the scholarship fund, and were excited that a student would benefit from the scholarship during the upcoming fall semester.
But five months after that scholarship was set up, the family’s excitement has been replaced by anguish and betrayal.
The scholarship that they thought was provided to a deserving student has not been awarded, and the state attorney general’s recent announcement that he would be pushing the Foundation into receivership because of worries about the organization’s finances has the Burian family reconsidering their decision to set up the scholarship within the Foundation.
The Burians’ story raises more questions about the management of the Foundation’s scholarship funds and highlights how donors and students could be impacted by the organization’s financial crisis and the expected takeover of the Foundation’s finances by a third party.
At the same time, the Burian family’s threat of legal action exposes the possibility of numerous other donor lawsuits against the Foundation moving forward, threatening the Foundation’s financial liability even further than the organization’s $1.6 million arbitration loss earlier this month to Granville Brinkman, the developer of Hawks Point.
It also compounds upon an already complicated situation for the Foundation, the attorney general’s office and the North Dakota University System, all of which are still struggling to understand the scope and depth of the organizations financial and accounting shortfalls.
“We are all trying to wrap our head around it,” Larry Skogen, the system’s interim chancellor, said Monday.
A focused review performed by the Fargo-based accounting firm Eide Bailly suggested that as much as $3.9 million may have been removed from restricted accounts and placed into the Foundation’s general operating account, but those numbers could not be confirmed with the Foundation.
It wasn’t until after hearing about how the Foundation had allegedly used restricted funds to cover operating shortfalls and collateral for loans that the Burians realized that no scholarship had been dispersed in Jared’s name.
When Michele Burian contacted the Foundation and asked about the status of the memorial fund, which the family had not received information on for more than two months, she was told that no scholarship had been awarded for the semester.
“We were like, ‘Why didn’t we know that there wasn’t a scholarship given out?’” Patti Burrian said. “We assumed there was going to be one given out this fall. That is what we agreed on.”
When Michele Burian asked why the scholarship had not been awarded, the organization responded by telling her that the pool of students that had applied was not large enough. But she said that there was no requirement for how large the applicant pool needed to be in order for the scholarship to be awarded.
“It’s not even our money. It’s everybody else’s money who wanted to carry Jared’s memory on through this scholarship,” Patti Burian said. “I just don’t think it is a very good thing that is going on.”
While there is no evidence to suggest that Jared’s scholarship fund had been used for other purposes, the Burian family said that the Foundation’s lack of transparency and questionable management practices have them considering the possibility of removing the scholarship funds from the Foundation.
“If they didn’t give the scholarship out, we are wondering if they didn’t use that money for something else,” Patti Burian said. “We don’t know what to think.
“It is in my husband’s name and it is just hard because we trusted them, and we had to find out through the press. It doesn’t really make for good feelings toward the Foundation.”
Glen Young, the current CEO and chief financial officer, did not respond to request for comment, but according to the focused review performed by Eide Bailly, the Foundation’s administration was told by Paul Ebeltoft, the Foundation’s attorney, that restriI tcted funds could be used to cover operating expenses and as collateral for loans.
“I am very disappointed and concerned, because we set this up in memory of our son and we want the students to benefit from this scholarship so that his passion lives on in others,” Michele Burian said. “We are worried about the integrity of the scholarship.”
Following the advice of Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s office, the family has hired an attorney and is seeking a total reimbursement from the Foundation.
That task has been made more difficult by the fact that the family does not have an accurate account of how much money was donated to begin with. Some of the donations made to the scholarship fund were anonymous and were managed by the Foundation.
From her knowledge, Michele Burian said there is at least $7,071 in the scholarship fund, but she said there could be more from anonymous donors.
The attorney that the family has consulted has been left scrambling to find everyone who donated and to ensure that every dollar is accounted for.
“We are going to make sure that that all of the money is accounted for, hopefully,” Patti Burian said
If needed, Michele Burian said the family is prepared to take legal action against the Foundation.
“We have an attorney involved and we will pursue this,” Michele Burian said.
From the university system’s perspective, there are still many unknowns.
Murray Sagsveen, the NDUS chief of staff and ethics director, said that Brady Martz, the accounting firm performing the most recent audit, has provided the university system with the most accurate accounting figures that it can, but that the auditors cannot make any determinations because of inadequate record keeping.
“Once we get the Foundation into receivership, I think we will start seeing answers to all these questions,” Skogen said. “Right now, there are more questions than answers.”
But for the donors, it may be too late. Patti and Michele Burian said the Foundation has lost its credibility in their eyes.
“We don’t know how all of this will turn out, but we are looking at withdrawing and placing it somewhere where students will benefit from it,” Michele Burian said. “We don’t want it used for other things.”
Patti Burian said the lack of communication and disclosure about problems at the Foundation made the situation even worse.
“They should have notified everyone who has a scholarships there that this is going on,” Patti Burian said, adding that donors should not have to hear the news from the attorney general.
She said she hopes airing her problems with the Foundation will encourage other donors to come forward.
“I just think people need to be aware,” Patti Burian said. “I feel like if other people who have scholarships there hear my situation, they will do the same thing.
“I don’t even know what to say. It’s heartbreaking.”
Brown is a regional reporter for The Dickinson Press. Contact him at 701-456-1206 and follow him on Twitter at Andy_Ed_Brown.