Congratulations and thanks to State Sen. Susan Wagle, chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and her fellow committee members for taking a hard look at the manner in which the Kansas Bioscience Authority has used public dollars to compensate its employees.
Friday morning, the committee held the second of three meetings to investigate whether the KBA, particularly KBA CEO Tom Thornton and president John Carlin, have compensated KBA employees in a wise and prudent manner.
Thornton’s salary of $265,000, plus a bonus last year of $100,000, as well as the salaries and bonuses paid to 12 of the KBA’s 21 staff members, have caught the attention of Wagle and other state legislators. These 12 staff members had 2010 salaries that started with one at $100,000, and ranged up to $175,000. These people also received bonuses totaling more than $100,000.
These salaries and bonuses have been called “lavish” by Wagle and other state legislators. Sen. Chris Steineger, R-Kansas City, said, “The board has been irrationally exuberant in allowing excessive, extravagant entertainment and executive bonuses.”
At Friday’s Commerce Committee meeting, the manner in which Thornton has spent money for personal limos, expensive hotels and other expenses was raised, and a former KBA employee sent a letter to the committee outlining her observations about Thornton’s spending. No one on the committee asked whether Thornton had additional income from consulting fees or board positions.
It would be interesting to know the cost of the recent trip to Washington, D.C., by KBA board members and invited guests. Because Thornton and Carlin knew they were under the eye of the Commerce Committee, they probably watched costs a bit more carefully, but even so, it will be interesting to learn the cost of this excursion, who all was included, how often the board takes similar trips and what was accomplished.
The loose manner in which Thornton and Carlin OK or justify the expenditure of money provided by tax receipts should be of concern to Commerce Committee members, as well as all legislators and the public.
It is hoped Wagle and her fellow lawmakers will dig deeper and look into the manner in which Thornton operates and how he is viewed by a growing number of those with whom he deals. He and the authority hand out millions upon millions of dollars for a number of important and worthy programs, and recipients of this money want to be careful they do not anger or alienate Thornton and KBA board members. They want to stay on their good side and continue to get millions of dollars.
At the same time, there are many in the state who have worked with Thornton in a variety of ways, who describe Thornton as arrogant, self-serving, egotistical and difficult to work with. They claim he will not return phone calls, that he turns people and potential businesses away, and “that any investigation of Thornton is long overdue.”
This is not a good reputation for the individual charged with leading the state’s efforts to attract new bioscience business and create jobs.
And yet, at Friday’s meeting in Topeka, he was defended by Carlin. The former governor, along with a number of KBA cronies and Thornton supporters, were present to support Thornton’s actions. Carlin said he approved of Thornton’s spending habits.
Wichita leaders have made it clear they are angry at the manner in which KBA dollars have been allocated, with Kansas University and Kansas State University receiving the large majority of funds and Wichita getting the short end of the allocation stick.
Several years ago, when Ford Motor Co. President and CEO Alan Mulally was in Lawrence for a chamber of commerce presentation, he said Wichita could be, and should be, the world’s center for the study and use of composite materials. At that time, he said the next generation of airplanes, as well as a growing number of other products, will be built with composites.
Wichita leaders have asked for increased funding for research and development in these fields but claim they have been denied or refused adequate and justified support from the KBA.
The KBA is a great concept, and it can help bring about a tremendous good for the state and its residents. Given this opportunity, and given the millions of dollars it has authority to spend, it deserves the best possible leadership and vision. It also should be remembered that individuals who are spending other people’s money should be more careful in allocating these funds than they would be in spending their own money.
The KBA has built an office building for themselves at the Olathe-Kansas State business park. Asked about the building, an Olathe official described it as a costly and beautiful shrine to Thornton.
Some, such as Carlin and others, say the salary paid to Thornton is justified because of the highly competitive environment among states trying to attract bioscience business, industry and jobs.
That’s an understandable argument, but high salaries, or even higher salaries would be justified only if and when the individuals holding the jobs are performing in an exceptional manner and have the respect of those with whom they work.
In any business, you usually get what you pay for.
Thornton and Carlin talk about helping to create 1,233 jobs through Jan. 31. It’s not clear what their timetable is for this 1,233 number, but in the first couple of years of the KBA, with different leadership, a substantially smaller staff and far fewer financial handouts, the authority brought in new companies that now provide between 3,500 and 4,000 jobs.
Again, it is hoped Wagle and other state legislators will dig deeper, ask more questions and determine just how good a job Thornton, Carlin and other KBA board members are doing. Is the state getting a good return on its money? Some worry about questioning the KBA and its spending habits for fear it will damage the terribly important $500 million-$600 million NBAF project now under way at Kansas State, but this project has the green light to proceed to its completion.
All Kansans should hope Sen. Wagle will continue to ask even tougher questions.
This writer served as a Kansas Bioscience Authority director from its inception in 2004 until he resigned in 2008. He continues to maintain a deep interest in KBA activities and the authority’s potential positive impact on the state.