Topeka Gov. Mark Parkinson on Friday named William Thornton acting secretary of the Kansas Department of Commerce and vigorously defended the departing secretary, Dave Kerr, who has been accused of unethical conduct by House Republican leaders.
Parkinson described Kerr as a person with the highest integrity and ethics.
When asked to respond to GOP criticism, Parkinson, a Democrat, said Kerr’s detractors need to be more civilized.
On Thursday, it was announced that Kerr was leaving the Kansas Department of Commerce to become director of the Missouri Department of Economic Development.
House GOP leaders cried foul, saying the switch comes at a time when Kerr was negotiating on a mammoth economic development project to try to move Cerner Corp. and the Kansas City Wizards soccer team from Missouri to Kansas City, Kan.
The lawmakers questioned whether Kerr was doing all he could to make the office complex and stadium deal happen.
“This is the most unethical thing I have ever heard of,” said House Majority Leader Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell. “While the Legislature is out of session, our Secretary of Commerce is negotiating for his own advancement while holding one of the largest economic development opportunities in Kansas’ history ransom. How can we be sure Kansas has made the best offer to secure the Cerner expansion?”
House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, and Appropriations Chairman Kevin Yoder, R-Overland Park, also were critical.
But Parkinson said the state’s offer of $230 million in incentives to Cerner was put together before Kerr was offered the Missouri job. When Kerr was approached about the Missouri position, Parkinson said, Kerr asked the governor if he should abstain from discussions on deals that involved trying to lure Missouri companies to Kansas. But Parkinson said he told him that would not be necessary because, he said, he knew Kerr would continue working hard on Kansas’ behalf.
Parkinson said proof of Kerr’s allegiance to Kansas was that Kerr was the main advocate for trying to lure Cerner to Kansas City, Kan. The state has made an offer, but no word has come yet from Cerner.
To critics of Kerr, Parkinson said: They should “treat fellow officeholders as human beings and not targets of abuse.”
Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, took a different tack from his House counterparts. Morris issued a statement praising Kerr’s work and wishing him well.
Meanwhile, Thornton, 57, of Atchison comes to the commerce department after having worked in the private sector for MGP Ingredients and Hallmark Cards. He is also an attorney, member of the Kansas Board of Regents and former chairman of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce. Thornton said he was laid off in June from MGP.
Thornton will resign from the regents. Both he and Parkinson said Thornton’s new job as secretary will dominate his time.