Bioscience Authority under microscope

03/05/2011 12:00 AM

03/05/2011 1:21 AM

TOPEKA — The Kansas Bioscience Authority's chief executive defended himself Friday against a former employee's assertions that he had her perform personal services for him while she was being paid from public money.

Also Friday, a former governor defended the authority against allegations that it is overpaying its employees, while House and Senate leaders from both parties criticized a Wichita lawmaker for investigating the agency's finances, saying it could jeopardize Kansas' role as host state for a national biodefense lab.

At Friday's meeting of the Senate Commerce Committee, Chairwoman Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, read a letter from Melissa Lynch, a former executive assistant to authority CEO Thomas Thornton.

The letter asserted that he made her perform a variety of errands for him on company time and questioned why the state pays for a $1 million life insurance policy that Lynch said was a condition of Thornton's divorce.

"After 16 months, I left the KBA due to my discomfort about what was going on, how things were being handled and the unethical actions of Tom Thornton or the waste of taxpayer money," Lynch wrote.

After the meeting, Thornton declined to specifically address most of the points in the letter, saying they didn't merit a response. He said he had fired Lynch "for cause," although he did not elaborate.

In the meeting, he did acknowledge that the state was paying for the $1 million life insurance policy on him with his children as the beneficiaries, but said that was approved by the agency board and is consistent with what other executives in similar situations receive.

He also said that he had had his assistant pay some of his personal bills for him, but that they were paid with his own money, not state funds.

"She has my personal checkbook, she pays my lawn-care bill," Thornton said. "That's what she did."

Public-private blend

The Bioscience Authority is funded by the state, but operates as a quasi-governmental public-private entity that works to bring high-tech biological research companies to the state.

It does that through a mix of grants to emerging and mature bioscience companies that agree to put facilities in Kansas. In addition, the agency provides business support and helps startup companies with planning and private financing.

Committee members had earlier questioned the salaries that the authority pays.

In 2010, Thornton was paid nearly $400,000 total, including his $257,000 salary, a $100,000 bonus, $20,000 in pension contributions, $11,000 in insurance and a $7,500 car allowance.

Of the 21 employees at the agency, 12 have base salaries of $100,000 a year or more, records show.

Last year, the agency gave bonuses totaling $206,520 split among 13 employees.

Nearly half of that was Thornton's bonus.

Former Gov. John Carlin, the chairman of authority board, told the committee that the agency has been doing great work and that salary, travel and other expenses questioned by committee members are a cost of doing business in bringing bioscience jobs to the state.

Carlin said the board had hired a consulting firm to evaluate the salaries and found them to be commensurate with similar agencies in other states.

"We don't want to come back and say, well, we did it on the cheap," Carlin said. "Didn't work out, we're sorry about it, but we saved a lot of money on salaries."

Pay called reasonable

Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate agreed with Carlin that the pay scale is reasonable and said Wagle is not being helpful to the state's bioscience effort by investigating the agency.

In news conferences, Senate President Steve Morris, Senate Majority Leader Jay Emler, Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley and House Minority Leader Paul Davis said controversy over the authority could threaten Kansas' position as the host state for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.

Manhattan has been selected as the site for the $650 million facility that will study ways to counter bioterrorism. So far, it's the crown jewel of Kansas' bioscience efforts.

Legislative leaders recently visited Washington to work with the state's Congressional delegation to ensure funding for the project is not cut from the federal budget.

"We don't need any negative publicity, regardless of what it is, on the Bioscience Authority if it's going to impact" the bioterrorism facility, Emler said.

Wagle said she is trying to protect taxpayer money and show the federal government that the state will act responsibly with its money.

Wichita complaints

The authority's finances have come under scrutiny by Wichita-area legislators after complaints from scientists at Wichita State University's Center of Innovation for Biomaterials in Orthopaedic Research, which is attempting to develop medical devices, such as hip and knee replacements, battlefield splints and stretchers.

The scientists have claimed that they are being shortchanged on a five-year, $20 million grant that they say they were supposed to receive from the authority.

Thornton has denied that the authority committed to any funding beyond an initial $4 million investment.

However, lawmakers say the authority made presentations to them indicating that the funding would be forthcoming.

Wagle is calling for a detailed audit of the agency and her committee has advanced a bill to place the secretaries of the Commerce and Revenue departments as the president and treasurer of the authority board.

Morris said he is holding the bill for now. While he could support adding the cabinet secretaries to the board, he does not think they should replace the officers as Wagle proposed, he said.

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