Kansas Advocacy and Protective Services is supposed to defend the rights of children and adults who have trouble defending themselves.
If that means suing a school district over the way it treats a mentally ill student or suing the state for steering too many people toward nursing homes, so be it.
But those who work with the disabled say the agency isn't doing its job and should be audited by the federal government.
"I hear a lot of talk about filing lawsuits and doing things to protect people with disabilities, but I don't see much action," said Jeanne Abraham-Lunz, director of the Self-Advocate Coalition of Kansas, a Lawrence-based program that helps people with disabilities learn to advocate for themselves.
And Kansas Advocacy's critics would like to know how it is that the attorney hired for $65,000 a year to press the agency's advocacy cases also happens to be chairman of the Kansas Advocacy board. A second board member also is under contract to the agency.
The arrangement between Kansas Advocacy and Protective Services and its board chairman, Robert Ochs, a Topeka lawyer, is well known in the state's advocacy community.
"I'm very, very uncomfortable with it," said Mike Oxford, executive director at Topeka Independent Living Resource Center. "We're a not-for-profit, too, and we have an excellent attorney on our board, but we won't even refer people to him because of the potential for or the appearance of a conflict of interest."
As part of the contract, Ochs also gets health insurance benefits.
Criticism of Kansas Advocacy and Protective Services, which has offices in Topeka and Manhattan, peaked last month when Interhab, a state association of community programs for the developmentally disabled, announced plans to file a lawsuit, accusing Gov. Bill Graves and the Legislature of failing to adequately finance much-needed programs, a violation of the federal Developmental Disabilities Reform Act.
The reform act affirms that people with disabilities have the right to live in community settings apartments or small group homes, for example rather than institutions, and that states are responsible for making sure those settings are available.
Interhab has long argued that state policy-makers haven't done enough to support openings in community programs.
Interhab decided to sue the state after lawmakers put no new money in the fiscal year 2003 budget for reducing community programs' waiting lists.
"Nobody joined Interhab in hopes of someday suing the state, but it's our sincere belief that we're seeing an erosion in the rights of disabled people to live and work in community settings," said Interhab director Tom Laing.
"We're doing this taking the state to court because it's become clear that KAPS isn't much interested in doing it for us," he said. "In fact, there's been an active reluctance on their part."
Cottonwood Inc. in Lawrence is an Interhab member.
Interhab and other advocacy groups say they'll ask the next governor state law prevents Graves from seeking a third term to route the state's share of federal protection-and-advocacy funding to a different agency.
Currently, Kansas Advocacy's activities are funded by six federal grants, totaling $1.2 million annually.
"Our dream is for there to be a 'Disability Law Center' of some kind because, frankly, a lot of people have had it with KAPS," said Gina McDonald, executive director at the Kansas Association of Centers for Independent Living, a group that lobbies on behalf of programs for the physically disabled.
"Other states are doing incredible things with their P&A; money, they're really making a difference," she said. "But we've not seen that here. It's discouraging."
At Kansas Advocacy's office in Topeka, executive director Jim Germer said the agency was caught between advocates' frustrations, budget restraints, and being the bearer of contrary opinion.
Kansas Advocacy resisted Interhab's call to sue the state, Germer said, because community services here have fared well compared to other states.
"Kansas' funding consistently ranks in the top one-third of the states," he said.
And it's shortsighted, Germer said, for community programs to claim their operations are stifled by inadequate funding when records show they have millions of dollars in reserve accounts.
Also, he said, the reform act is "subject to appropriation," which means legislators can't be forced to spend money they don't have.
"We wish them well, but we do not believe Interhab is going to prevail," said Germer, who is an attorney.
Germer insists that Kansas Advocacy's record shows it's not been reluctant to go to court. He produced a list of 20 lawsuits filed since 1996, including a pair of high-profile cases involving the death of a resident at Larned State Hospital and the wrongful admission of a resident, also at Larned State Hospital.
"We are not shy about suing SRS (Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services), our record shows that," Germer said.
Other documents show Kansas Advocacy has settled hundreds of disputes with letters or telephones calls to would-be defendants.
"Part of the problem here is public relations," Germer said. "We need to do a better job letting people know all the different things that we do."
But Germer insisted there was nothing wrong with the contracts that have many of the agency's critics fuming.
Conflict of interest?
Ochs, a former pardon attorney for Gov. Robert Docking and a former vice president at the Lawrence-based Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, is Kansas Advocacy's director of litigation. The other Kansas Advocacy board member under contract to the agency is Jai Sookram, a psychologist and clinical director at the Larned Juvenile Correctional Facility. He's paid to perform administrative chores for Germer.
Germer provided the Journal-World with a copy of the program's contract with Ochs but refused to disclose how much Ochs was paid. Sookram's contract was not available.
Because Kansas Advocacy is a private, nonprofit organization, its contracts are not subject to federal open records laws.
Through other sources, the Journal-World obtained a copy of Och's latest contract. It calls for Kansas Advocacy paying him $5,416.67 a month ($65,000 a year).
Germer, who's paid $55,000 a year, insisted the arrangement was neither illegal nor unethical, noting that it was his idea not Ochs' to contract with Ochs.
"He's a real bulldog, he's the engine that makes this place run," Germer said, adding that when Ochs' board term expires in September, he intends to "keep him on board as a consultant."
Kansas Advocacy has contracted with Ochs since 1996, a year after Ochs joined the agency's board and was named chairman.
Journal-World attempts to reach Ochs and Sookram for comment were unsuccessful.
Jane Rhys, director of the Kansas Developmental Disabilities Council, said she's ready to ask the Administration on Developmental Disabilities within U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to audit Kansas Advocacy.
"With all the questions being raised about this, I think it's time to see if we can get the feds to come in and take a look," she said.
Rhys said she'll ask her council to request an audit during its next meeting in August.
Ray Sanchez, director at the Administration on Developmental Disabilities, didn't return phone calls.