Topeka Stays at the Ritz-Carlton, limo rides and a million-dollar life insurance policy were among the Kansas Bioscience Authority’s expenses that had the Senate Commerce Committee asking questions Friday morning.
In its third hearing on KBA spending, the state committee continued to grill the KBA about staff salaries, bonuses and expenses — CEO and President Tom Thornton’s in particular.
“It just seemed very flagrant in a time of need,” committee chairwoman Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said.
Wagle is asking for an audit of the agency, and the Commerce Committee has proposed a bill that would change how the KBA is governed.
Among Wagle’s concerns was a letter sent by Melissa Lynch, the former executive assistant of Tom Thornton. Lynch, who in 2006 was the first employee other than Thornton hired to operate the KBA, wrote that she left after 16 months because she was uncomfortable “with how things were being handled and the unethical actions of Tom Thornton and the waste of taxpayer money.”
In her letter to the committee, Lynch said that while at the KBA she paid Thornton’s personal bills, picked up his children’s nanny and negotiated and purchased a Toyota Camry for his personal use.
The letter also included details of Thornton’s $1 million life insurance policy for which the board agreed to pay premiums.
Thornton said Lynch, who wasn’t at Friday’s meeting, was terminated for cause. He also said those bills were paid from his personal bank account and that his contract, which included the life insurance policy, was approved by the board. Thornton’s salary is at $265,000 a year. He received a $100,000 bonus last year, and another $43,000 is spent on insurance and retirement benefits.
KBA board chairman and former Kansas Gov. John Carlin defended Thornton, saying he came with the experience of having worked for a former U.S. speaker of the House and an Illinois technology development organization .
Carlin credited Thornton for the state landing the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.
“He understood instantly how to put a plan together to make that possible. I don’t think we had anyone else,” Carlin said. “We don’t have too many that have the experience he had.”
Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said he was bothered by how the KBA traveled, including nights at the Ritz-Carlton and limousine service. He asked Carlin if he signed off on that spending.
“We approve of that level if it is appropriate for what is being done,” Carlin responded. “We deal with folks who travel in those circles and, consequently, from time to time, yes, we have to do something that a lot of us Kansans, including myself, would say that is a little beyond what is necessary.”
After the meeting, Carlin said those costs were associated with a trip to Washington, D.C. The KBA chose the hotel because a meeting was being held there. The limo service was used to transport a large group of people and was cheaper than paying for multiple cab rides.
Much of Friday’s hearing was spent with the KBA defending the need to spend more than $2 million to employ a staff of 21.
More than half of the staff makes more than $100,000, and last year $206,500 was handed out in employee bonuses.
“We have to pay the salaries to attract the talent and to retain the talent to get the job done,” Carlin said.
Next Friday, the Commerce Committee will discuss a forensic audit of the KBA.