KBA to hire accounting, paralegal help

The Kansas Bioscience Authority plans to bring in extra help to deal with requests for information from investigations of the agency and how it conducts business.

At a KBA board meeting in Wichita on Monday, interim chief executive David Vranicar got permission to bring in temporary accounting and paralegal assistance to handle document demands from a variety of governmental and private sources. The amount and type of assistance will be decided as the probes continue, based on the need to comply with requests for records, KBA officials said.

The agency is under investigation by the Johnson County District Attorney's Office, the state Senate Commerce Committee and auditors hired by the board for an in-depth examination of the agency's books.

The governor's office and media outlets, including The Eagle, have also requested agency documents.

The Bioscience Authority is a key economic development department of the state, created by the Legislature and given the task of increasing the number of companies and workers engaged in human, plant and animal science in Kansas.

But it has come under fire in recent months from state senators and others concerned that it may be engaged in overspending and backroom dealing — allegations agency officials have denied.

Monday was Vranicar's first board meeting as the chief of the KBA after his predecessor, Tom Thornton, resigned under fire and moved to a job with the innovations division of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

On Monday, Vranicar read through a long list of the types of inquiries that have been coming into the KBA, including requests for information on:

* Salaries, bonuses and expense accounts, including details of an office Christmas party at an upscale Kansas City, Mo., restaurant.

* Bank records, details of the agency's investments in early-stage companies and how those companies were selected.

* Possible conflicts of interest and ties between the KBA and organizations in Thornton's former home state of Illinois.

* Dealings with out-of-state venture-capital firms.

Vranicar said the largest number of requests is from auditors with the investment counseling firm BKD LLP, which the KBA's executive committee hired for a forensic audit of the agency.

Forensic audits are detailed examinations of financial activities — much more in-depth than the standard financial audits the KBA undergoes each year — and are designed to produce a report that can be used in court.

Former Gov. John Carlin, the chairman of the KBA board and the executive committee, said the agency has committed $40,000 to the audit, although less than $25,000 has been spent so far. Results are not expected before late summer, Vranicar and Carlin said.

Gov. Sam Brownback has criticized the agency for going forward with the audit itself, saying an independent probe led by his office and Attorney General Derek Schmidt would lead to a more credible conclusion.

Monday, Carlin said the agency has worked closely with the governor's designated liaison on the audit, Secretary of Agriculture Dale Rodman, and has expanded the scope of the probe at his request.

"I think we as board members can be very comfortable that our staff has done an excellent job in being responsive, being very open," Carlin said. "I don't think there's been any criticism of us for not responding in a timely fashion and we've certainly been consistent with what we said we would be, transparent, open ... to avoid the appearance that we're in any way trying to cover anything up, because we're not."

The KBA on Monday also awarded more than $2 million to companies that are working to develop their businesses in Kansas.

Those investments include:

* $650,000 to Abaxis Veterinary Reference Lab, a California company that is planning an expansion in Olathe to develop a national veterinary diagnostic database.

* $450,000 to OsteoGeneX of Kansas City to work with Israeli and domestic funding sources on a spinal fusion and fracture-repair device.

* $428,070 to Immunogenetix Therapeutics of Lenexa, to help fund early testing of a possible HIV vaccine using DNA therapy.

* $424,895 to assist Pinnacle Technology of Lawrence in marketing electronic biological sensors and other devices.

* $199,500 to Echogen, an Overland Park firm that is seeking to develop a technique discovered by a University of Kansas researcher that has the potential to improve drug delivery in cancer treatments.

* $123,678 to Aptakon, a company seeking to develop faster and less expensive reagents for detection of cancer.