When former commerce secretary Antonio Soave announced that he was ending his bid to represent the state’s 2nd District, he said he made the decision in consultation with his wife “after a great deal of prayer and contemplation.” He explained that the campaign was putting too much pressure on his personal life: “The stress of this campaign has proven to be more than we anticipated. As a result, we feel it is best to focus our attention on our children and our home.”
A few days before Soave realized that politics was just too stressful for him, the Kansas City Star reported that he had given at least nine of his friends and associates “Commerce Department contracts for consulting and marketing services, costing the state tens of thousands of dollars a month.” One of these contracts went to the One Heart Project – an organization that later hired Soave as the executive director of its Kansas City Initiative (which put him in charge of the “organization’s operations in Kansas and Missouri”).
Another particularly troubling contract was awarded to Paola Ghezzo – Soave’s former business partner who sued him this summer for allegedly misusing the funds she invested in their joint firm, Capistrano Italia. Soave’s response to Ghezzo’s lawsuit accuses her of lacking “expertise, experience, time, interest, discipline, and entrepreneurial drive,” showing up to work “sporadically” and spending “much of her time overseas in Italy” – allegations that don’t exactly make her sound like a model state employee.
In an attempt to discredit Ghezzo, Soave and his lawyers present her as emotionally unstable, incompetent, unreliable and vindictive. But here’s the problem: Soave didn’t seem to care about any of that when he gave her a part-time, taxpayer-funded, $72,000-per-year consulting job. Soave may have strengthened his defense against Ghezzo’s allegations (if what he claims about her is true), but in doing so, he made his decision to hand her a lucrative state contract sound completely indefensible. Did he actually think she could do the job? Or was he just placating an angry business partner?
When Rep. Stephanie Clayton, R-Overland Park, was informed about the contracts, she was furious: “I wish we could get that money back. We need that money. I am just aghast at this.”
Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, wasn’t quite as emphatic, but he expressed concern as well: “Is it a technical violation of our ethics laws? Perhaps not, but it certainly would raise eyebrows to the extent you might say, ‘How wise is that?’” But lawmakers should do more than raise their eyebrows – Soave’s behavior suggests that there was a disturbing lack of oversight at the Department of Commerce, and Kansas taxpayers deserve to know if a high-ranking public official was using his position to do favors for his friends and business partners.
This is why Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley is right to propose an official review of Soave’s conduct as commerce secretary. According to a report in The Topeka Capital-Journal, “Under the review proposed by Hensley, the Division of Post Audit would evaluate whether Soave’s use of state resources during his tenure was appropriate and whether the basis for contracts he approved was reasonable.”
When Soave announced that he was getting out of the congressional race, he said he tried to “increase the economic impact on the state in a way that I felt was appropriate and positive.” It’s time to figure out how “appropriate” his tenure really was.
Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.