Now that the forensic audit of the Kansas Bioscience Authority and its former president and chief executive officer has been completed, it is time for a fresh start for the KBA.
The audit exposed the phoniness and deceit of former KBA President Tom Thornton and the unwillingness of KBA directors to blow the whistle on him. Some directors were negligent for not speaking up while others were wrong in covering up for the leader and his actions and policies.
The audit reported Thornton engaged in document destruction and numerous other ethical violations, as well as other highly questionable actions. All of this time, his directors were singing his praises, defending his actions and ridiculing those who questioned his work.
The results vindicate Gov. Sam Brownback’s call for the audit, as well as the effort of Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, to expose Thornton’s wrongdoing. Without the audit, chances are, Thornton still would be KBA president and his supportive board members would be riding high, engaged in questionable, if not illegal or unethical actions.
Unfortunately, the audit only tells half the story of Thornton’s role in the KBA, leaving out how partisan politics entered the picture and brought about substantial changes in the way the KBA operated and used millions of dollars intended to improve the Kansas economy.
The authority was created by the Kansas Legislature in 2004. During its first several years, new businesses and industries were attracted to the state, and existing businesses expanded. It is estimated that, in the first several years, those businesses encouraged to come to the state or expand their operations with KBA assistance now employ about 3,500 people.
The KBA operation was a success in every respect. In fact, it was so successful that then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and her insiders realized they wanted to be part of the operation, hook their star to KBA and take control. That’s when Thornton and several directors started to play hardball politics. They and Sebelius finessed the removal of then-Chairman Clay Blair, who had been so successful in guiding the KBA in its startup and in recruiting new business and industry to the state. Thornton, Sebelius and others have tried to claim credit for attracting the highly prized National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility to Manhattan and Kansas State University, but it was under Blair’s leadership that the effort was organized and launched. U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts also played an extremely important role.
The KBA is a unique creation of former state Rep. Kenny Wilk and former state Sen. Nick Jordan. It has great potential, but it has been severely damaged and handicapped by the efforts of Thornton and Sebelius to inject their own egos, self interests and political aspirations into the operation.
The state and its taxpayers deserve better. It’s good Brownback has called for more oversight, holding back funds until there is evidence the KBA has gotten its house in order. Changes must be made so the authority can resume its intended position as a highly respected, nonpartisan body that can help Kansas grow through bioscience research, innovation and commercialization.
There is every reason to be optimistic about the future if the KBA can regain the respect and performance record it enjoyed before it became a political football. Merely handing out gifts or grants of millions of dollars may win friends and admirers, but far more effort needs to be devoted to the hard work of attracting new businesses to Kansas from throughout the country and abroad.