Archive for Saturday, March 5, 2011

Kansas should applaud efforts to hold KBA accountable

March 5, 2011


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.


Phillbert 6 years, 10 months ago

So many things to comment on. Does one mention that NBAF is far from the done deal that "this writer" claims it is? Or how ridiculous it is to hold up Wagle and Steineger (!) as great crusaders for anything but their own egos? Or how Dolph is advocating for Wichita to get more money, regardless of merit, at KU's expense?

Or does one simply point out that this column is really about one person that "this writer" never mentions? That person being his friend Clay Blair, who got the boot after using KBA to enrich himself and his family.

Bob_Keeshan 6 years, 10 months ago

If "this writer" is so concerned about the KBA, then why doesn't he explain why he quit the board?

This is not "this writer's" first snit about the board he once served on, before he quit that is. And it explains everything about the slanted reporting he's been directing his journalists to employ.

Such as reporting on "lavish" expenses in Washington DC in the first paragraph, then explaining that those expenses were actually money savers in the last paragraph.

Something stinks here, alright, and it looks to be a few politicians trying to turn the KBA into their personal slush fund for earmarks.

susieparker 6 years, 10 months ago

The key being that Dolph Simons quit the board most likely due to the unethical practices going on in the KBA.

Bob_Keeshan 6 years, 10 months ago

"Most likely"? Quick to criticize, but without facts?

Hint -- the unethical practices were those of Dolph Simons.

Phil Minkin 6 years, 10 months ago

Although I generally think Waggle is a loon, there may be something here, although she seems to be going at it in a predictable whacko way. While the NABF may be a great thing for the state, we can't just blindly allow it to go on unchecked on every level just because of the benefits. Lybia points out that you can't turn a blind eye toward wrongdoing, just because of financial benefits.

yourworstnightmare 6 years, 10 months ago

I agree with much of what Mr. Simons says, except: "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 B in KBA stands for "Bioscience". Unless these composities are being made from biological materials, it seems a bit of a stretch to use the KBA, whose existence is to build the Bioscience industry, to fund aerospace industry research.

KU_cynic 6 years, 10 months ago

Let's face it, all these biotech development initiatives in Kansas are amateurism by politicians, bureaucrats, and third-rate quasi-industry hacks. If Thornton and his cronies were worth their salt they'd be on the coasts or major metro centers where the real action is in this business, not running back and forth between Olathe and Topeka kissing politicians butts.

Thunderdome 6 years, 10 months ago

There are a number of people on the Board with questionable credentials to support bioscience economic development. But we need to be careful in using the term "all" when discussing the membership. Your characterization of "third rate quasi-industry hacks" is particularly troubling. The only people who have served on the board to date who actually had a clue as to what they were doing are from the private sector and a couple from academia. With proper oversight, direction, and makeup, the KBA could be an important asset. Unfortunately, at this point, it is too inbred to do anything except to transfer wealth among its cronies...a problem driven largely by academic and political members.

As to your geographical characterization, if all the action is on the coasts and major metro areas, why are you here? If you don't believe anything good can happen here, let me invite you to move on. We have enough naysayers here.

KU_cynic 6 years, 10 months ago

I'm here . . . but I don't have my hand in your pocket.

quetzal 6 years, 10 months ago

This article is shameful. The extent of distorted facts is incredible. But I guess given the author one could expect no less. If you had been at the hearing you would know that the "personal limos" was in fact a bus rental for the legislative tour in Wichita. And the "expensive hotels" being referred to was a staff member attending a convention to attract businesses to Kansas. And Dolph should remember when he was a board member of the KBA, the "office buidling" he refers to was a pet project by he and Clay Blair. If this is a shrine for Thronton then explain why the building's address is on Clay Blair Blvd. Funny how you don't seem to want to mention that. And let's not forget, because you so convientley left out, that the Venture Accelerator is a incubator for start -up companies surrounding land owned by you and Clay. Any more facts you want to distort or leave out?

Bradley Kemp 6 years, 10 months ago

Who decided to build the bioscience sector in Kansas? The state legislature did, that's who. The legislature created the bioscience authority. Susan Wagle voted for it.

BigPrune 6 years, 10 months ago

I think the KBA sounds like a major scam, perhaps the biggest in state history. Dig deep.

yourworstnightmare 6 years, 10 months ago

Good point, JackRipper. Curious that arch-conservative David Koch would choose to donate $100 million to a university in a liberal cesspool like MA. To be fair, he is an MIT grad.

Could it also be that he realizes that his money will be well spent at MIT, in a state that has liberally supported science and education for many years?

I wonder if Dr. Tyler Jacks, the David Koch Professor at MIT, is aware of Koch's financial support for extreme right-wing causes? I suppose any money that Koch spends on Dr. Jacks is not spent on right wing extremism.

I also wonder how the climate scientists at MIT think about this, as Koch is also a major financier of anti-climate science campaigns to deny human-caused climate change.

BigPrune 6 years, 10 months ago

George Soros has contributed far more money to all of his fringe crazy liberal groups, plus he has ruined the economies of 5 countries and has been convicted in abstentia - but he's okay, right?

tomatogrower 6 years, 10 months ago

Oh good grief. I agree with the Wagle lady on something. Will wonders never cease?

yourworstnightmare 6 years, 10 months ago

At the dedication ceremony for the Koch Cancer Center, David Koch warned about the damage to his new institute and to cancer research in general that would be done if the federal budget for research was cut.

He seems to be at odds with himself, or wants cuts only to programs that he doesn't agree with.

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