Kansas Advocacy chairman resigns after conflict surfaces

The chairman of a federally funded Kansas advocacy group for the disabled has resigned after criticism for drawing a $65,000 annual contract from the same agency he oversaw.

Federal officials said they had urged Kansas Advocacy and Protective Services to “reconsider the conflict-of-interest issue” after a story about the agency’s contracts appeared in Monday’s Journal-World.

The suggestion was heeded: Kansas Advocacy announced Wednesday that its chairman, Robert Ochs, had resigned from the governing board of the nonprofit agency.

“He’s off, period,” said Jim Germer, the agency’s executive director.

Directors of several groups that aid the state’s disabled and rely on Kansas Advocacy’s legal services had criticized the arrangement, saying it posed an obvious and discomforting conflict of interest.

“Though we feel the criticism is unjustified we’ve always been up-front about it Robert (Ochs) has agreed to step down,” Germer said.

Kansas Advocacy, which is charged with protecting the rights of children and adults with physical and mental disabilities, will continue to pay Ochs for his advice on litigation issues.

“We still want to keep Robert (Ochs) on as litigation attorney,” Germer said.

But Ochs’ resignation from the board negates any potential conflict of interest, Germer said.

A second board member, Jai Sookram, is expected either to resign his seat or give up his consulting contract.

“I’ve not talked to him yet,” Germer said Wednesday afternoon. “But if he needs to step down, he will.”

In earlier interviews, Germer said Sookram’s pay and tasks were considerably less than those of Ochs’. The program’s contracts are not subject to federal open records laws.

Sookram is a psychologist and clinical director at the Larned Juvenile Correctional Facility.

Ochs is a former pardon attorney for Gov. Robert Docking and a former vice president at the Lawrence-based Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.

Neither Ochs nor Sookram could be reached for comment.

Critics await results

Whether Ochs’ resignation silences Kansas Advocacy’s critics remains to be seen.

“I don’t know what the impact will be hey, I don’t want to get into a debate with a bunch of lawyers over how they write their contracts,” said Tom Laing, executive director at Interhab, a Kansas association of community programs caring for the developmentally disabled.

Last week, Laing criticized Kansas Advocacy for not doing enough to protect the interests of disabled people who need services.

Also on Wednesday, Ray Sanchez, director of program operations at the Administration on Developmental Disabilities within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, confirmed that on Monday he had called Kansas Advocacy urging the agency to “reconsider the conflict-of-interest issue.”

Sanchez said his office planned to audit Kansas Advocacy’s finances and performance in October or November.

Until then, Germer said he hoped to meet one-on-one with Kansas Advocacy’s critics.

“I truly believe we are a lot more active on a lot more issues than our detractors realize,” Germer said.

Jane Rhys, director of the Kansas Developmental Disabilities Council, said she would welcome a meeting with Germer.

“I applaud Mr. Ochs’ decision to step down,” she said. “And I think it would be good to get the stakeholders together for a discussion on what (Kansas Advocacy) should be doing.”