After weeks of denial, Gov. Sam Brownback’s office now says the governor terminated his former commerce secretary from his position.
The confirmation that former Commerce Secretary Antonio Soave was forced out of his position in June comes less than a day after The Star published an investigation into Soave’s work. Brownback had repeatedly denied claims that Soave was forced to resign.
“During his time as Commerce Secretary, Antonio Soave did a number of positive things but also presented a number of problems that resulted in his termination,” the governor’s office said in a statement provided to The Star. “Among those problems, he entered into several consulting contracts that reflected a lack of judgment and that the Governor felt were inappropriate. These contracts were either terminated or not renewed as appropriate under the circumstances.”
Brownback painted an entirely different picture in June when he announced Soave’s resignation.
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“Secretary Soave added great vision to the Department of Commerce,” Brownback said at the time. “He brought enthusiasm for entrepreneurship and experience working with businesses in a wide range of industries. We wish him well in his new endeavors.
Soave’s attorneys had said in court documents that Soave resigned in June under pressure from the governor’s office that resulted from a legal fight between Soave and a business partner. Despite the court filing, Brownback denied in September that he had forced Soave to quit.
When he was asked again last week about Soave, Brownback said the two had parted ways amicably. The governor also avoided answering directly when asked if he had concerns about Soave’s giving state contracts to friends and business associates.
“We’ve got a lot of contracts as a state,” Brownback said last week. “Commerce has a lot of different contractors. We’ve had contract employees (a) long time. It’s not an unusual practice. It’s been — we’ve had contracts. It’s been a pretty regular practice.”
Soave responded to Brownback’s statement Friday by sending his own statement to The Star. He said he had resigned “after mutual accord and agreement.”
Regarding contracts for consultants, he said: “It is important to note that I followed all internal policies and procedures on all procurement matters, including with the hiring of consultants. I was not able to hire anyone on my own accord (as it pertained to staff), nor was I was able to sign-off on any expenditure on my own. Each and every procurement scenario required several signatures. We were very careful to comply with all existing policies.”
Soave, an Olathe Republican, is a candidate for Congress in Kansas’ 2nd District.
Less than two months after Soave was fired by Kansas, he was hired by a charity founded by the owner of a business that had secured a contract from Soave’s agency worth more than $300,000.
Soave this week lost his position with the One Heart Project charity, which serves at-risk youth, shortly after The Star asked questions about his hiring.
In addition, The Star identified at least nine of Soave’s friends or business partners who had landed state contracts for consulting and marketing services during his 18 months as secretary.
Soave has previously said that he followed all rules with the contracts and that his consultants helped reduce overall costs at the agency.
“I helped to select a group of business people from around the country who could provide us with great business leads from a number of locations at a reduced cost — much less than what we were paying to other consultants similarly situated,” Soave said in an email Wednesday.
Candidates for Kansas governor from both parties criticized the way Brownback’s administration ran the state’s economic development program after revelations that friends of the cabinet secretary had state contracts for consulting services.
“The culture of corruption is real,” Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican running for his party’s nomination, posted to his Facebook page. “Topeka needs leadership not cronyism.”
Kobach linked to The Star’s investigation.
Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, another Republican vying for the nomination, would not immediately comment on Soave when asked Friday about the contracts after a statue unveiling in Topeka. The Brownback statement was sent to The Star more than two hours after Colyer spoke to reporters.
“I’m not going to talk about that issue today. We will have some thoughts at the right time,” said Colyer, a Johnson County surgeon who will become governor if Brownback is confirmed for an ambassadorship in the Trump administration.
Colyer would not say when the right time would be.
“I just read your story,” Colyer said. “It’s a good story. It’s a good story. I mean, I literally read it five minutes ago as I was walking over here. I’m not going to comment today.”
But former state Sen. Jim Barnett, another Republican candidate who was at the same statue unveiling, expressed concerns about state contracts going to personal associates.
“I don’t think that’s a good approach,” Barnett said. “I think one of the problems with the current administration is transparency. I hear it over and over again. I think transparency is important for voters to trust that we’re spending tax dollars properly.”
Barnett added that he thinks the most important appointment he could make as governor would be the head of the Commerce Department.
“It’s a key position. I think that’s the most important challenge for the next governor is to figure out how to grow the state’s economy,” said Barnett, who is focusing his campaign on economic issues.
Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, a Democrat running for governor, also blasted Soave on Twitter.
“The culture of corruption in Topeka must change. How much of this wasted money could have gone to better schools and public safety?” Brewer said.