Topeka — State Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, on Friday released copies of legal records, letters and Facebook pictures in alleging that Kansas Bioscience Authority leader Tom Thornton has conflicts of interest.
“I have found some information that alarms me,” said Wagle, who is chair of the Senate Commerce Committee and has held previous hearings into KBA operations.
Commerce Committee member Chris Steineger, R-Kansas City, agreed, saying, “There are lots of problems with this agency. This investigation has to be larger and made more public. What we presented here is just the tip of the iceberg.”
But there was a strong push back from supporters of Thornton and the KBA. They accused Wagle of an ambush.
Former Kansas Gov. John Carlin, who now serves as chairman of the KBA board, said Wagle’s public accusations threaten the state securing government funding of the $650 million National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, and the future of the KBA, which was created in 2004.
“You were brilliant in 2004, and we are about to screw it up,” Carlin said during a sometimes-heated Commerce meeting.
Several committee members said they were upset that Wagle gave the documents to KBA officials at the start of the meeting, not giving them time to get answers to the allegations before making the allegations public.
“This is getting a little bit ridiculous,” said Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe. “It’s like we’re trying to shotgun them. Let’s give them questions. Let’s give them time to answer.”
Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, said, “This hearsay back and forth, I am really uncomfortable with.”
At the start of the meeting, Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, Vice President John Vratil, R-Leawood, and Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka sat in the front row in the audience to show their support for the KBA. Thornton was not present at the meeting. Carlin said Thornton was in Florida on vacation. A woman answering the phone at the KBA said she didn’t know when Thornton would return to work.
Morris said the KBA “was an icon for the state of Kansas.”
The KBA is in charge of investing $581 million in tax funds to attract high-tech bioscience companies to Kansas.
Hensley said the attack on Thornton was part of a plan by Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, to get rid of Thornton and replace him with his own pick. Brownback has denied trying to interfere with the KBA but has given his blessing to Wagle’s inquiries.
Wagle said her records show that Thornton had steered KBA funds to companies that were run by his business associates from Illinois.
She said he also served as president of a Chicago-based Internet company that had lost $421 million in 18 months and has been under the scrutiny of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Carlin said he would answer all questions about Wagle’s allegations but would need time. Wagle said the committee will meet again to discuss the KBA on April 27.
In the packet of information handed out by Wagle, there were three pictures of Thornton at an office staff party. In one he is photographed with his wife, Lindsey, who had worked for Thornton at the KBA.
Wagle has criticized the salaries and bonuses at KBA. Thornton earns $265,000 per year and last year received a $100,000 bonus. His wife, Lindsey, was making $107,500 per year as director of special projects, but recently left the KBA.
In another photo, Thornton is signing checks. David Vranicar, president of Heartland BioVentures, a program of the KBA, said those were KBA business checks that had to be signed the day of the party.
There also was a photocopy of a $100 bill with Ben Franklin’s face replaced with Thornton’s. KBA officials said that was simply a joke.
Committee members also had questions about a couple of investments by the KBA into companies that eventually failed or didn’t get off the ground. KBA officials said it was the nature of the business that some investments would be better than others.