Topeka — A Graves Cabinet secretary let taxpayers pick up the tab for trips that weren't strictly business, and legislators are howling about it.
In March, as the fates of many frail elderly Kansans were being decided by budget-making legislators, Thelma Hunter Gordon, Gov. Bill Graves' secretary of aging, apparently had better things to do than work the committee rooms, making the case for her agency and those who rely upon it.
She was in Georgia at taxpayer expense, collecting anecdotes for her personal biography. The book, she told a reporter, will chronicle her rise from childhood in the Jim Crow South to being the "highest ranking black official in Kansas."
Her biographer, a Gordon subordinate at the Kansas Department on Aging, accompanied her, also courtesy of taxpayers.
In July, as waiting lists became reality for Kansas elderly seeking services needed to keep them out of nursing homes, Gordon was in Hawaii. Taxpayers bought that trip, too.
Gordon's poorly timed travels and apparent misuse of tax dollars have several legislators fuming.
"It's becoming more and more apparent that Aging is a leaderless agency," Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said.
"To have the secretary flying all over the country rather than dealing with the problems within her agency, as well as the fallout from the budget shortfall, is irresponsible and should be dealt with by the Legislature," Rep. Henry Helgerson, D-Wichita, said.
Republican lawmakers aren't too tickled, either.
"I'm ready to take a pretty serious look at Aging," said Sen. Sandy Praeger, the Lawrence Republican who chairs the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.
Gordon's travel arrangements came to light after the Journal-World spent hours reviewing Aging Department expense records tucked away in the file cabinets of the state's central accounting office.
Confronted by the Journal-World, Gordon promised to reimburse the state for the time inappropriately spent in Georgia.
She said that while the trip to Hawaii "doesn't look good" and "is unfortunate" because of its timing, nevertheless it was appropriate and does not warrant reimbursement.
Gordon, more so than most members of the Graves Cabinet, has a penchant for travel. In the state fiscal year that ended June 30, she took 11 out-of-state trips that put her out of her Topeka office for at least 40 days.
But the two trips that made her absent from Topeka during sensitive budget times for her agency and the elderly Kansans who rely upon it are the ones that have lawmakers wondering what in the world Gordon was thinking.
The Georgia trip
Gordon and her press secretary, Sandra Moran, flew to Atlanta on March 26 -- a Friday -- for a six-day National Managed Health Care Congress conference that began March 29 -- a Monday -- at the Georgia World Congress Center.
On March 27, Gordon and Moran drove a rental car to Stephens, Ga., a rural community near Athens, to meet with Gordon's relatives and childhood friends.
Before leaving Kansas, Gordon had directed Moran to notify the Athens-area media that Gordon was returning home to collect anecdotes about her childhood for a biography that Moran would write.
A subsequent story in the Athens Daily News said Gordon would be in the area "chronicling her days from living in the Jim Crow South to becoming the highest ranking black official in Kansas."
The story also reported the biography "is being commissioned by the University of Kansas Press."
But Michael Briggs, a spokesman for University Press of Kansas, told the Journal-World he's never heard of the proposed Gordon biography.
"Sounds to me like somebody got their facts screwed up," he said. "That doesn't sound like a good fit for our list" of publications.
Gordon and Moran say they spent the rest of the week -- March 29 through April 2 -- at the National Managed Health Care Congress' annual conference.
After the Journal-World asked her about the trip, Gordon said she would reimburse the state for three of the seven days she stayed at the Marriott Residence Inn ($425.70) and for the rental car ($314.82).
"That was a mistake," she said. "I did not realize those additional days and that car were on there," she said, referring to the expense voucher she submitted to the state. "I will pay that part myself."
The Hawaii trip
The week before Aging officials began telling frail, elderly Kansans that it would be several months before they would be eligible for help with their grocery shopping, bathing and minor medical needs, Gordon was in Hawaii for "Aging Societies in the New Millennium: Global Trends in Care and Services," a conference sponsored by the International Association of Homes and Services for the Aging.
The conference lasted four days, June 27 through June 30.
Gordon spent seven nights , from June 25 through July 1, at the Hilton Hawaiian Village on Honolulu's Waikiki Beach.
Taxpayers' expense: $1,395.94 for the hotel room, $180 for meals, $49 in cab fares, and $817.20 air fare.
"There was nothing I could do to stop the (waiting list); it didn't matter if I was in Kansas City, Topeka or Hays," she said. "The fact that I was in Hawaii is unfortunate, but it wasn't planned that way. That was a coincidence."
The conference, she said, was the only nursing home-related conference she's been to since being named Graves' aging secretary in 1995.
"This was an international conference on aging issues that are worldwide," she said. "What it offered " I felt I needed that as part of my learning curve."
But some who work closely with the Aging Department say they see scant evidence of return on taxpayers' investment in Gordon's "learning curve."
"I spent a lot of time in the Army, and I have a master's degree in management. And I guess I have a different philosophy," said Jim Beckwith, executive director of the Hiawatha-based Northeast Kansas Area Agency on Aging. "I believe that if you make a significant investment in training, you should see a corresponding return on that investment. So if a person goes to a lot of out-of-state conferences, they should come back with a lot of information to share, and that information should improve your program and the management of your department.
"I don't see that happening at the Department on Aging. It may be there, but I don't see it."
The other learning curve
When the elderly, their families and advocates began complaining about the waiting list, several lawmakers said they didn't know about the change in policy that created it until after it took effect.
"As legislators, we're being blamed for not being on top of this," said Praeger. "But a lot of us didn't know it was happening."
They didn't know, the senator said, because Gordon and her aides made little effort to keep them informed.
"Putting frail, elderly people on a waiting list is a policy decision that should not be made by a state agency," she said. "That's a decision for us as legislators because we're the ones who have to answer for it. And that didn't happen."
Gordon argued that legislators should have known about the waiting list because they gave her the authority to start it.
"If I'm a legislator and I'm concerned about what happens to the elders across the state, and I sign a bill -- it was Senate Bill 325 -- that directs the secretary on aging to get (federal) authorization for waiting lists, I'm going to find out what that bill means."
Part of the confusion, Gordon said, was that money to prevent the waiting list wasn't cut from Aging's budget until the session's final days.
"Things got a little wild, and at that point there was nothing I could do," she said.
That may be true, said Rep. Doug Spangler, D-Kansas City, a member of the budget subcommittee that crafted Aging's budget in the House, but the time to alert legislators is during a budget's formative stages.
Gordon didn't do that, he said.
"A Cabinet secretary has to be ever-vigilant," Spangler said, "because money can very easily be pulled out of your budget and put somewhere else. Everybody knows that.
"I thought the department's interests were not adequately represented," Spangler said. "I'm sorry, I don't know how else to say it."
-- Dave Ranney's phone message number is 832-7222. His e-mail is email@example.com.