Politics & Government

Senator raises questions over KBA's out-of-state meetings

The chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee said Tuesday that she plans to ask for an attorney general's opinion on the legality of the Kansas Bioscience Authority conducting business out of state.

Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said she is also concerned about closed sessions the authority board held during its two-day meeting that concluded in Wichita on Tuesday and plans to ask Attorney General Derek Schmidt to look into that as well.

"I will be asking the attorney general to determine whether or not the KBA is following the Open Meetings and Open Records Law required by our statutes," Wagle said in an e-mail response to Eagle questions.

John Carlin, a former governor and chairman of the KBA board, said Wagle raises an "interesting question" that has never come up, although the authority has met out of state for several years.

Asked about the legality of taking action out of state, Carlin said, "I don't know. You can tell the senator thank you; we anxiously await the answer."

The KBA board meets in Washington each year. Board member Dan Watkins said the primary purpose isn't to have a business meeting there, but to meet with congressional representatives and officials of agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security.

Carlin said the KBA can easily adjust if the attorney general prohibits dealing with agency business out of state.

"If the opinion comes back we can't take any (action), we can have another meeting,'' he said.

"We don't really do that much; it's a very short meeting."

Wagle said she has documented $54 million in appropriations approved by the board at out-of-state meetings since 2009.

"In some of those meetings, not all, according to their minutes, the KBA hooked up a speaker phone at their office so that concerned citizens could listen in on the discussion," Wagle said. "That doesn't sound very transparent to me.

"If the KBA can appropriate money out of state, there is no reason why the Kansas Legislature can't call a meeting in Hawaii and allow interested Kansans to listen in through a speaker phone."

As chairwoman of the Commerce Committee, Wagle has been leading a legislative inquiry into the KBA's spending, salaries and business practices.

The agency is also under investigation by the Johnson County District Attorney's Office and has hired an auditor to prepare a detailed examination of its financial transactions.

The KBA is a key economic development department of the state, created by the Legislature to increase the number of companies and workers engaged in human, plant and animal science in Kansas.

Wagle also said she plans to ask the attorney general's opinion on issues raised by The Eagle over closed KBA board sessions this week.

On Monday, the board met in open session for about 2 1/2 hours, then went into closed session to work on its annual plan for about 3 1/2 hours. The closed session continued for just under four hours Tuesday.

The plan will be publicly released when it's finished, probably next month, officials said.

According to the agenda, the legal basis for closing the meeting was to discuss "financial and operational strategies of the KBA."

Eagle attorney Lyndon Vix said he thinks the board may be misinterpreting a law authorizing the KBA to hold closed meetings to discuss "contracts for bioscience research, bioscience product manufacturing or commercialization, construction and renovation of bioscience facilities and marketing or operational strategies."

Vix said his reading of the law is that the board can go behind closed doors to discuss only contracts, not marketing or operational strategies.

KBA board members and staff who spoke to The Eagle on Tuesday said they would ask their attorney to review the newspaper's complaint.

Carlin said the private discussions contain references to confidential business information from companies that the KBA works with and invests in. He said it would be very difficult to try to separate the portions of each topic that can be discussed in open session.

"From a layman's point of view, we've still got to protect that company's vital information," Carlin said.