Who is Dan Watkins and the Kansas Values Institute?
The Kansas Values Institute (KVI) has been attacking the record of Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican. The chair of KVI is Dan Watkins, an attorney from Lawrence. Helen VanEtten, Topeka, a national committeewoman for Kansas Republican Party, has done a great job of outlining Watkins’ longtime connections to the Democratic Party. Kansas Meadowlark has also done an outstanding job of reporting on where KVI gets its money and with whom it spends it. However, liberals and moderates who are cheering on KVI might want to consider Watkins’ business dealings in Douglas County.
Many liberals and moderates opposed the construction of the South Lawrence Trafficway (SLT). Few, however, know of Watkins’ role in the SLT, which goes back to the 1980s. The Pitch, an alternative newspaper based in Kansas City, did extensive reporting on the SLT and Watkins in 1997. According to The Pitch:
Watkins served as chief counsel for the Kansas Dept. of Transportation from 1980 to 1984. He says he worked with County Commissioner Nancy Hiebert, KDOT planning director Michael O’Keefe and members of the Kansas Turnpike Authority to “look at transportation-related problems and possible solutions” before the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce ever got involved. But Watkins’ name also appears on the trafficway proposal that came out of the secret Chamber of Commerce planning meetings.
In August 1985, when the Douglas County Commission sought engineering firms for a preliminary study of the highway, commissioners were impressed with HNTB’s bells and whistles. “Describing the firm’s presentation, which she said included color-coded charts and an ‘8-foot-long’ visual aid, Hiebert said she has ‘never seen a presentation up to that level,'” according to the Journal-World. HNTB won out over eight other firms, though none of the firms had submitted bids. The county paid HNTB $148,500 for the preliminary study.
When HNTB returned several months later with its results, the presenters included Daniel J. Watkins, a managing partner in the firm and the father of Dan Watkins. The elder Watkins later retired from HNTB, but not before the firm had secured much of the county’s trafficway business. Some argue that the family connection was a bit too close.
“No one says that very loud,” says Dan Watkins. “HNTB was selected for every major road project in the state of Kansas. They designed the Kansas Turnpike and many turnpikes around the country. They were a firm well positioned to design limited access roadways when the federal interstate system was funded in the ’50s and ’60s. They’re one of the largest design firms in the country. My dad is a well-recognized, well-respected engineer. The fact that he’s my father doesn’t have a goddamn thing to do with anything.”
Many liberals and moderates also opposed Columbia/HCA’s proposal to build a second hospital in Lawrence. Watkins also played a major role in that controversy proposal, as did Hiebert and another lawyer turned judge named Paula Martin.
In 1994, Martin was part of a 19-member pool of Douglas County attorneys hoping to be appointed to a new judgeship. Amongst the seven-member judicial nominating committee was Nancy Hiebert, a former Douglas County commissioner. Two years before then, Hiebert had been appointed to the Commission on Judicial Qualifications, which is the state’s watchdog agency for municipal and district judges.
At the time that Martin was being considered for the new judgeship, the 1994 Polk’s Lawrence City Directory shows her office was located at 211 E. 8th St., Ste. C, in Lawrence. The directory also listed attorney Dan Watkins’ office at the very same address.
After the pool of 19 had been pared down to three, the governor appointed Martin to fill the new judgeship. (Dan Watkins has worked for and with several Kansas governors. I have heard, but could not confirm, that he lobbied Gov. Joan Finney to appoint Martin to the judgeship.)
That same year, Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp began expressing an interest in doing business in Lawrence. The corporation hired Hiebert as a liaison between the corporation and City of Lawrence officials. By early 1995, Columbia/HCA had proposed to buy half of Lawrence Memorial Hospital. Dan Watkins, a Lawrence attorney working on the Columbia/HCA proposal, “estimated that $28 million in cash would be generated by the creation of the joint venture.” Hiebert appeared with Watkins when he presented the proposal to Douglas County commissioners. In June 1996 Hiebert was promoted to serve as acting chief operating officer of Mt. Oread Medical Arts Centre, which was owned by Columbia/HCA. Like Watkins, Hiebert is deeply involved in Democratic Party politics. In fact, she and her husband John hosted Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, at their home in 2005. At that event, Dean told the crowd, “This is a struggle of good and evil. And we’re the good.”
After LMH trustees rejected Columbia/HCA’s proposal to buy LMH, Columbia/HCA announced its intentions to build a for-profit hospital in Lawrence to compete with city-owned LMH.
In December 1996, Lawrence city commissioners unanimously rejected Columbia/HCA’s proposal to build a new, for-profit hospital in Lawrence. According to the Journal-World, “Columbia’s local attorney, Dan Watkins, cautioned commissioners that governments aren’t always granted immunity from antitrust laws, particularly when the city, which owns the hospital, is a ‘market participant.'”
In February 1997, Columbia/HCA filed a lawsuit against the City of Lawrence, saying “The city commission had no reason to deny Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. its request to build a hospital in Lawrence.” (Hiebert left her position as acting chief operating officer of Mt. Oread Medical Arts Centre prior to the filing of the lawsuit.)
In July 1997, three executives of Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. were indicted by a federal grand jury in Florida on charges of defrauding the government for over a decade. They’re charged with conspiring to overbill Medicare and Medicaid by more than $1.7 million. Richard Scott, chairman and chief executive of the corporation, was forced to resign. In August 1997, the trustee for the New York state public pension fund sued 11 current and former executives and directors of Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., saying that they had allowed “pervasive and systemic” criminal fraud to flourish throughout the company. In January 2001, two subsidiaries of The Healthcare Corp., formerly Columbia/HCA, pleaded guilty to criminal fraud charges and were fined $65.2 million.
Back in Lawrence, Columbia/HCA’s lawsuit against the city was given to Judge Paula Martin to rule on. In May 1998, Judge Martin ruled in favor of Columbia/HCA, saying that the city’s permit rejection was “unreasonable.” The city responded with an appeal.
In February 2000, months after Columbia/HCA had sold its Mt. Oread complex to LMH, the Kansas Court of Appeals overturned Judge Martin’s ruling, and for one simple reason, which the judge apparently overlooked: Columbia/HCA did not own the property involved, so the question of whether it should be allowed to proceed with a new hospital was moot.
I will leave it to the reader to judge for herself or himself whether Watkins’ roles with the SLT and Columbia/HCA represent “Kansas values.”