TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) The former president of the Kanas Bioscience Authority destroyed computer files, misused agency funds and misled the authority’s board of directors about the nature of a relationship with a female assistant whom he later married, according to an outside audit that cost taxpayers nearly $1 million to complete.
Investigators from BKD Forensics and Valuation Services also found that former president Tom Thornton lied about the nature of a trip he took to Ohio in January 2011 to visit with the Cleveland Clinic about the KBA’s business model. The audit found that Thornton earned $1,868,299 during his four and half years at KBA.
The audit was made public following an executive session of the KBA board of directors in suburban Kansas City. Chairman Dan Watkins said overall the audit affirmed the authority’s investments process “is diligent” and makes no significant findings or exceptions in KBA expenditures or conflicts of interest.
“The audit report should clear the air regarding questions raised in the past year,” Watkins said in a statement, adding the board would use the audit to increase accountability.
Auditors said because of the manner in which electronic documents were destroyed that it could not determine whether Thornton’s computer owned by KBA held evidence of misuse or abuse of the agency’s funds.
“A complete quantification of what activities, files and folders existed on the computer prior the use of wiping tools is not possible,” auditors wrote.
Thornton resigned from the KBA in April to take a position with the clinic as scrutiny over his management of the authority intensified in Topeka. Thornton was not immediately available for comment on Monday.
The audit was demanded by legislators and Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration following a series of committee hearings.
“The facts brought forth by the audit are deeply troubling,” Brownback said in a statement. “This is not how we do business in the State of Kansas.”
Brownback called for a halt in all KBA spending and business commitments until the Legislature “decides what kind of future the state wants for the KBA.”
“The biosciences industry is an extremely important industry in Kansas and I am committed to growing this key sector of our state economy,” he said.
Sen. Susan Wagle, whose commerce committee heard testimony on the KBA in 2011, said putting the halt to KBA spending was a good first step until legislators learned more about the audit and activities under Thornton’s tenure.
“Clearly, there needs to be more oversight for the money that’s being spent over there,” said Wagle, a Wichita Republican. “It’s going to take a long time to sort this out.”
Legislators created the KBA in 2004 and it annually invests some $35 million in state funds to foster growth in the biosciences sector. Among the activities include work on the state’s successful bid to land the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, a $650 million lab to conduct research on deadly plant and animal pathogens.
Brownback’s top advisers met on March 10 with Thornton and KBA Chairman John Carlin, a former Democratic governor, about conducting the audit “to resolve all questions” about the agency. The KBA agreed to conduct the audit, paying $960,000 for the work.
That evening, Thornton composed a resignation letter on his KBA-issued laptop, the audit found, and then began deleting computer files on a KBA network and his laptop.
The KBA agreed to the audit on April 11 and Thornton resigned April 13 and was asked to turn in his laptop.
A week later, Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe issued a global document subpoena to the KBA to begin conducting his own investigation. The audit found evidence that Thornton destroyed “virtually all of the information” on his KBA laptop over the next two days, then turned it in April 25.
Carlin, who defended Thornton’s management and the board of directors’ oversight, resigned as chairman in 2011 and his term expires in 2012.
Auditors said that KBA employees were interviewed about Thornton’s relationship with Lindsay Holwick, whom he later married. Employees told auditors that they noticed the “developing relationship” between Holwick and Thornton, including “allegations that inappropriate intimate behavior occurred between Mr. Thornton and Lindsay Holwick Thornton in KBA’s offices.”
KBA board members were not notified of the relationship “until they received wedding invitations in the late December 2010 timeframe.” Board members told auditors that the information was something that they would have liked to have known.
Auditors found that Thornton later reimbursed the KBA for the airline ticket to Ohio, an overpayment for a car allowance and for a painting that he purchased with KBA funds, displayed in his home but later was given to charity. In all, some $4,600 in expenses was repaid after the KBA board made its demands.