Kansas Bioscience Authority hearings, day 2

At the second day of testimony (January 26, 2012) regarding a forensic audit of the Kansas Bioscience Authority, a representative of Kansas Governor Sam Brownback was strongly critical of the audit itself, and also of the Board of Directors of KBA. Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Dale A. Rodman, who oversaw the audit process on behalf of the Brownback Administration, also said that legislators who voted to form the KBA should “feel outraged that a golden opportunity that you helped create was taken away from your efforts.”

Rodman urged the committee to step back and look at the situation from a distance, saying that many of the issues are “deep and buried.” To him, he said the important issues are first, is the KBA obtaining the performance expected, and second, is the KBA worthy stewards of Kansans’ money?

Based on his investigation, Rodman listed several measures that troubled him, specifically: “The KBA spent $200,000 per job before Tom Thornton and $700,000 per job after he became the CEO of the KBA.” Thornton is the former CEO who resigned shortly after the audit process started. At yesterday’s hearing, Senator Chris Steineger, a Kansas City Republican, presented figures that estimated a cost of $750,000 per job created, using a slightly different set of data.

A second troubling measure, Rodman said, is that KBA spent “nearly 40 cents of every dollar invested on overhead expenses.” He said the KBA board must be responsible for these results.

In a separate letter sent to KBA Board Chairman Dan Watkins, Rodman listed more detailed concerns, including that only 347 jobs are shown by KBA as having been created since 2007. Another concern, he said, is that there appear to be many instances of double counting of invested funds. He said that certain companies were not reporting as required, and some numbers were being “filled in.”

Rodman said the expenditure of over $18 million for KBA headquarters was excessive, a concern shared by many legislators.

What amazed Rodman, he said, was when acting KBA CEO David Vranicar told Rodman he was not there to create jobs. This, along with the earlier evidence he cited, showed him that KBA was not fulfilling the mission of the Kansas Economic Growth Act, the legislation that created KBA.

In follow-up correspondence from KBA, Watkins cited the larger mission statement of KNA, and also that “the longer-term mission is more robust: to build a bioscience infrastructure that will generate high-paying bioscience jobs today and for future generations of Kansans.” Near-term job creation is not the sole focus, the letter added.

Rodman also spoke about the conflict of interest issues, which were prominent in Wednesday’s hearings. BKD auditors said that KBA board followed policy by disclosing that they had a financial interest in a potential KBA investment or grant, and refraining from voting. But Rodman said that is not enough: “Whether or not it is legal is not the issue. It does not pass the smell test. If it smells bad, it is bad, and you should not do it.”

Rodman cited the governing Kansas statute, which reads “No part of the funds of the authority shall inure to the benefit of, or be distributed to, its employees, officers or members of the board.” The statute has exceptions which do not apply in this case.

Rodman, both in his verbal and written testimony, cited the case of KBA board member Bill Sanford. Quoting from the KBA audit, Rodman said “Bill Sanford is the COB and 14% owner of NanoScale, a bioscience company that received four grants totaling $674,996 from KBA.”

Relating a discussion he had with Sanford, Rodman told the committee: ‘Director Sanford looked at me and said ” If you want to get something done, you have to hire someone like Thornton. If we had hired a laid-back Kansan we would not be where we are at today.’ You know, I have to agree with him, we would not be in this room today. With a good Kansan in charge we would not be having this meeting.”

The issue of Thorton’s unethical behavior is at the center of this affair, with a related issue being whether Thornton’s departure solves all problems with the KBA, or if there is a deeper problem.

Also highlighted by Rodman was the issue of missing intellectual property. This refers to the loss of data, along with backups of that data, on the so-called “J-Drive,” a shared and restricted storage location on KBA’s network. Thornton also erased and digitally scrubbed data from his personal laptop computer. Computer forensics experts were not able to recover any of this missing data.

Rodman told the committee that the KBA board, immediately after learning that Thornton quit to go work for a competing firm (Cleveland Clinic Innovations), should have issued a “cease and desist” order, saying “This will inform the competitor that knowledge the employee has belongs to the former employer, and use of that information will result in legal action.” As he believes the KBA board did not do this, Rodman said he concludes “Kansas has lost intellectual property.”

Summarizing, Rodman said that “Thornton was a mistake,” and that the KBA board should have recognized this. He urged the committee to fix the problem, as Kansas needs growth in the bioscience industry.

Senator Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican who chaired the meeting, noted the statute that Rodman cited regarding conflicts of interest, saying that it prevents board members or employees from receiving a financial benefit based on their position. The BKD audit, she said, cites many such instances of financial benefits, and in every instance the audit concludes that since board members disclosed their conflict was resolved, and that procedures are in place to prevent conflicts of interest.

Of the BKD audit generally, Rodman said the document is complex, and “probably deliberately so.” Wagle, who has been concerned that the audit is “sanitized” and doesn’t present the full scope of issues and problems, asked “Could that be sanitizing conclusions?” Rodman demurred, answering “There was a lot of work on the report.”

Senator Ty Masterson, a Republican from Andover, asked Rodman what needed to be changed at the KBA. Rodman said he wasn’t ready to answer that now, despite having thought about it. He did say there had to be some dramatic changes in the system.

Masterson also asked about the costs of the audit: Did Thornton’s action in deleting data increase the cost of the BKD audit? Rodman said we should go after Thornton for possible increased costs of the audit.

A question from Representative Les Osterman, a Wichita Republican, framed the issue this way: Do we need different or better rules and laws, or does the problem lie with the composition of the KBA board? Rodman answered that If the KBA board had done their job, we wouldn’t be here today. He repeated that there is a statute to take care of conflicts of interest, but there is a problem with the governance of the KBA board.

Follow-up by Republican Senator Ray Merrick expressed concern that since Thornton, who he labeled a “bad apple,” is gone, the problem is over. But the same board is in place, the same people are in charge, and that he was not satisfied going forward.

But not all members of the committee shared these concerns. Tom Holland, a Democratic Senator from Baldwin City, pressed Rodman as to whether intellectual property had actually been stolen from KBA due to the loss of data from the J-Drive and Thornton’s computer, or was there only the potential for that? Rodman said yes, intellectual property was taken, although that was not stated in the audit.

Holland repeated his questions from yesterday: Does KBA have appropriate management procedures, policies, and controls in place? And does KBA follow these consistently? Snyder, the BKD auditor, had answered yes to both of these questions, although with one exception. Today, Holland pressed Rodman if he took “ownership” of the BKD audit. Eventually Rodman said he did. Holland then asked if the audit was “an accurate summary of life at the KBA.” Rodman said yes, but with qualifications, and Wagle expressed her concern, also.

There is a factor not brought up in testimony, nor in my reading of the BKD audit report, that complicates the KBA governance and may be a source of problems. The KBA has an independent source of revenue that is not dependent on appropriations from the legislature. This source is the incremental growth in tax withholding from employees of Kansas bioscience companies and research institutions. I asked both Wagle and a spokesperson for Governor Brownback if this was a factor or a problem. Both said this is a question for the KBA.

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