House votes to reduce Bioscience Authority role in funding for bioterrorism lab at K-State

TOPEKA — The House of Representatives today unanimously approved a bill cutting the Kansas Bioscience Authority out of handling more than $100 million in bonds for a major bioterrorism lab under development at Kansas State University.

Under House Substitute for Senate Bill 154, the state Department of Administration, which falls under the governor’s control, would replace the KBA to issue $105 million in bonds to develop the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.

The State Finance Council, a nine-member committee made up of the governor and leaders from the House and Senate, will have final control over the bond process.

This evening, the Senate voted not to concur with the House action, to allow the bill to go to a House-Senate conference committee.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, said she wanted to discuss the changes the House made before recommending whether to approve them.

The federal laboratory will be the nation’s premiere facility for research into countering possible bioterrorism attacks and threats to the nation’s food supply.

Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Bel Aire, said the House wants to shift the bond duties to send a signal to the federal government that the state will meet all its commitments to building the $650 million facility.

He said representatives want to make sure that ongoing investigations of the KBA don’t open the door for other states to try to steal the laboratory from Kansas.

“We didn’t want any kind of hint of a problem,” Brunk said.

The Bioscience Authority is at present under investigation by the Johnson County District Attorney’s office.

While prosecutors have not released details of that criminal probe, members of the Senate Commerce Committee have questioned KBA leaders on its salary and bonus structure, travel and entertainment spending, investment policies and participation in out-of-state venture capital funds. The agency’s chief executive officer, Tom Thornton recently resigned under fire and has since moved to a job at the Cleveland Clinic.

Bioscience Authority officials have defended the agency’s business and personnel practices, which they say are consistent with similar agencies in other states and allowed by legislation enabling the authority to act more like a private business.

Board members said this week that they are unsure what the district attorney is examining.

Under pressure from the governor and lawmakers, KBA leaders have retained an accounting and investment firm to conduct a “forensic audit” into the agency’s financial operations. A forensic audit is a deep examination of an agency’s transactions designed to create a report that can be used as evidence in a court of law.

Commerce Committee Chairwoman Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, announced this week that she plans to seek an attorney general’s opinion to determine whether the KBA board has violated the state’s Open Meeting Act by taking action at out-of-state meetings.