Topeka — Kansas Bioscience Authority leaders on Wednesday acknowledged that the agency was being investigated but disputed allegations of wrongdoing leveled by a state senator from Wichita.
In his first public comments since state Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, on Friday accused him of conflicts of interest, KBA President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Thornton said that he has done nothing wrong and that Wagle has left impressions that are not true.
Thornton was backed up by the KBA's board chairman John Carlin, a former Kansas governor. “None of her charges hold up,” Carlin said.
Their comments came after Wagle told reporters that the KBA was being investigated by the Johnson County District Attorney's office.
“There is a criminal investigation going on,” Wagle said. She declined to reveal any more information, except to say several employees have received subpoenas.
Carlin and Thornton said there is an investigation but that they knew little more than that. They said they weren't concerned about the probe because the agency is repeatedly audited. Chris McMullin, chief deputy district attorney in Johnson County, said the office would not comment on whether there was an investigation.
News of the investigation prompted Gov. Sam Brownback to issue a statement, saying he was “deeply concerned about the recent media reports regarding the Kansas Bioscience Authority.”
He said he supports the KBA's mission, “but we must leave no stone unturned to ensure the integrity and success of that mission.” His office would not comment beyond the statement.
Wagle, who is chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, has held several hearings during which she has been critical of the size of salaries and bonuses paid to Thornton and others at the KBA.
Thornton receives $265,000 per year. KBA officials have said his salary is in line with what similar positions pay in other states.
Wagle also has criticized some of the investments made by the agency.
The KBA is in charge of investing $581 million in tax funds to attract high-tech bioscience companies in Kansas.
On Friday, during a hearing on the KBA, Wagle released numerous documents in which she raised questions about Thornton's links to economic development in Illinois.
She cited his membership on an Illinois science technology committee and as being listed in charge of a technology political action committee in that state. On Wednesday, Thornton said his affiliations with those efforts were over before 2000, which is six years before he came to the KBA.
Wagle also mentioned a company that Thornton had been a leader in that went bankrupt and has been under scrutiny from federal officials. But Thornton said the company's troubles occurred after he disassociated himself from it and the company pursued another course. That also occurred before he came to Kansas, he said.
“To allege I was involved in any of that is ridiculous,” Thornton said. “It's the equivalent to say, I've been to Japan and have been responsible for the tsunami,” he said.
Carlin and Thornton said Wagle made requests for information and before they could respond she started a new round of allegations.
Wagle has defended her handling of the committee meetings, but last week several senators said they were uncomfortable with the procedure.
Carlin and Thornton say they have prepared a response to each of Wagle's assertions. She has scheduled another Commerce meeting on KBA for April 27 when the legislative session resumes.
In his statement, Brownback said, “Our interest is in seeing that taxpayer money is well-spent and Kansas laws are upheld.”