Sutherland: The Rise & Fall of The Kansas ‘Moderate Machine’

adkinsLast summer the entrenched “Moderate Machine” that has run Johnson County and the State of Kansas for the last 150 years went through a “Ceausescu Moment.” 

This is the moment when a dictatorship learns to its shock and dismay that its orders will no longer be followed unthinkingly by a docile populace.  (It takes its name from the occasion right before his 1989 downfall when the last Communist dictator of Romania, Nicolai Ceausescu, was haranguing a crowd and the crowd’s cheers turned to jeers, and a look of astonishment came over his face.)

When the Moderate Machine was routed from its last stronghold, the State Senate, the facade behind which it wielded power was shown to be surprisingly hollow.  The dirty little secret that no one talks about is that the Machine was only able to wield power for so long through a system of self-dealing and patronage.

Politically connected lawyers and bankers saw to it over the years that all legal work and bond business went to them.  The school district and community college work was given to Machine stalwarts.  Government contracts were awarded on a non-competitive bid basis, any attempt to change which was met with fierce resistance.  The lucrative publication of legal notices was steered towards newspapers which did not have the paid circulation required by state law but which supported the Machine with their coverage.  (When that practice was questioned, the law was changed overnight.)

Nicolae-CeausescuAll the institutions that could serve as a check on corruption (the court system, the Governmental Ethics Commission, the Bar Disciplinary Administrator’s Office), had long since been co-opted by the Machine.  Moderates and their Democratic allies were exempted from any meaningful oversight.  Conservatives, by contrast, were subject to draconian penalties for even the most inadvertent transgressions.

A case in point is former State Senator David Adkins.  Adkins started his career at the former Bennett, Lytle law firm (known not so fondly in Johnson County legal and political circles as “the Bennett, Lytle Mafia”).  After that firm closed its doors, he continued to serve in the Kansas legislature.  (He served four terms in the Kansas House and one term in the Kansas Senate, representing Prairie Village, Leawood, and other small cities in the Northeastern corner of Johnson County.)

Adkins then held a series of positions thanks to his ties to the Machine, i.e. salaried positions with the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, the Lathrop & Gage law firm, and the KU Medical Center, where he was “Vice-Chancellor of External Affairs (Lobbyist?).”

The beauty of these jobs was that they paid substantial salaries (some years in excess of $100,000) for work that was, to be charitable, only part-time.  For instance, someone in a “Of Counsel” position at Lathrop & Gage during that time period was expected to generate 2,000 billable hours a year.  (This would amount to $500,000 in annual billings by an attorney of Adkins’ age and experience.)

Yet sources in the firm tell me there were years during the time David Adkins was on the Lathrop & Gage payroll when he recorded no billable time.  (The clear expectation was that he would repay the firm many times over if he became the Kansas Attorney General.)

But a funny thing happened on the way to Topeka—Adkins lost the primary in 2002.

Screen shot 2013-04-23 at 3.38.36 AMAdkins was further able to feather his own nest by steering government and not-for-profit grants to YouthFriends Adkins wife Lisa Adkins was the longtime executive director – an organization that places adults in local schools to act as mentors to young people on a volunteer basis.

By all accounts, it’s a worthy program that has served thousands of youngsters over the years in the Kansas City area.

What is not clear is how an organization that is almost exclusively based on the efforts of volunteers could consume millions of dollars in grants on administrative expenses.  YouthFriends was started with a $1.5 million dollar grant from the Kansas Youth Commission, a state agency David Adkins was chairing at the time.  More recently, the Kansas City Star reported that YouthFriends had exhausted a $5.4 million dollar three year grant from the Kaufman Foundation and was closing its doors.

The Star, which has been the organization’s biggest booster, blames the bad local economy for its demise.  (This is strange since YouthFriends is not a commercial business that survives by selling goods or services to the public, which would be hard hit by an economic downturn, but gets its funding from government and foundations.)

The real explanation is that “David and Lisa” (wasn’t that the name of a schmaltzy movie in the ‘60’s?) have left town and are no longer drawing a paycheck from the organization so the Machine let it die a natural death.

The key component of the not-for-profit web that funds the Moderate Machine has disappeared.  Once the access to the money and power from patronage that is its life support is withdrawn, the Machine itself will die.  That is what inevitably happened when the Machine’s candidates were swept out of office on August 7, 2012.

“This is the way the world ends.  Not with a bang but a whimper.”  — T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men” 1925.

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19 Responses to Sutherland: The Rise & Fall of The Kansas ‘Moderate Machine’

  1. DPW says:

    Big difference, Ceausescu had to be forcefully removed from office. If the people of Kansas want a change they can vote. I am having a hard time seeing any comparison between an evil Ceausescu regime and Brownback.

  2. Orphan of the Road says:

    The sole purpose of politics is to control the contracts.

    Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.
    H. L. Mencken

    • the dude says:

      No fun when the gubment tittay goes and dries up, where will the leeches feed next?

      • Orphan of the Road says:

        On the corpses of the taxpayers?

        Today’s policies and legislators are put in place by the hang-around-the-fort-Indians.

        That is the minority of people who suck at the government teat and claim they speak for all of us.

  3. david says:

    Imagine, a conservative JoCo lawyer railing on moderate JoCo lawyers. Meanwhile the state goes bankrupt, obvious unconstitutional laws are passed and the Kochs puppet theater continues.

  4. Metomkin Mama says:

    Superb article. David, you obviously missed the whole point of the post. I think that Sutherland has bravely put two and two together to expose the truth about just one example of rampant cronyism in the more “moderate” wing of the Republican Party. Thank goodness the word is getting out and voters are starting to figure it out. And David, you shouldn’t automatically reject (or embrace) all Republican politicians in the state but soberly and unemotionally analyze their positions and vote with your head (and not with some snarky infantile soundbite regarding the Kochs that your answer so poorly mimics).

  5. david says:

    11 years ago in the TCJ…

    “Adkins shouldn’t expect a vote from Dwight Sutherland, at least not in the primary.

    Sutherland ran against Adkins in 2000 for his current Senate seat. He said he wasn’t surprised by Adkins’ victory in the “heavily moderate, liberal Republican district.” But he said he wanted to call attention to his opponent, whom Sutherland described as “a poster boy for self-dealing and conflict of interest.”

    “He doesn’t have a philosophy,” he said. “The only philosophy (moderate Republicans) have is get and hold power so they can reward themselves and their friends. There is no moderate philosophy.”

    yep, I’ll take that post with a grain of salt. Someone is still hurting years and years later…

    • admin says:

      That’s a pretty big leap for someone who opts to read between the lines on ancient history and traffic in innuendo rather than deal with the topic at hand.

  6. paulwilsonkc says:

    Welcome aboard, Dwight! I look forward to reading your thoughts and opinions. Thanks for classing the place up!

  7. gerald bostock says:

    Joco was controlled by a bunch of paunchy middle-aged white bankers, lawyers and developers. (Note Steve Rose’s column this morning about the good old days when he had regular breakfast meetings with Don Pipes and other paunchy middle-aged white guys.) They chose to be Republicans because that was the smart play in the county; if they were across the line in KCMO, they would have been Democrats. If they were in Beijing, they would have been communists.
    But if this author thinks conditions are better because movement conservatives are now in power, he is a deluded fool. Do you think Sam Brownback does not hand out government contracts to his cronies? Do you think doctrinaire conservatives are standing on principle and forgoing their turn at the government teat? The old guard may have been paternalistic in deciding what was good for Joco as long as they could stay connected to wealth and power, but the new guard wants to grab the wealth and power while destroying the system.

  8. Super Dave says:

    Welcome Dwight, to the lunatic fringe sometimes known as KCC.

  9. John Altevogt says:

    I won’t hide behind a screen name like David (Adkins?), but let me assure folks that Dwight has been railing about corruption in Kansas government since I’ve known him in the mid 90’s and long before he ran against Kansas’ poster child for political corruption, David Adkins (as determined by the Ralph Nader journalistic “50 States” project, not a local with an alleged case of sour grapes).

    As an unwilling observer from inside the belly of the beast, no one is more knowledgeable about how the old JOCO machine worked, save those who profited from its excesses, than Dwight Sutherland. If anyone were to write a history of Kansas politics over the past 5 decades the best choice would be Dwight Sutherland. He has always brought to the task a true attorney’s ability to analyze what he sees in front of him from all sides of the issue. This is certainly a far better analysis than anything you will read in our local handmaiden to corruption, The Star. Great piece.

  10. harley says:

    nice article. But jr. …this happens on both sides of the aisle.
    The dems have their cake..
    the repubs have their cake.
    and if they need each others cooperation they work out a deal so both
    sides get plenty of cake.
    This is nothing new. I worked for the top ultra conservative republicans
    running kansas and i’ve done work for the national democrats who now
    run the country…they’re all the same jr.
    Tothe winner goes the spoils. But they also know they need each
    other to get those spoils some of the time.
    If you’ve seen these politicians you know that its “me first”…you
    That’s the system jr. It’s not anything new and its not anything
    we havent seen before.
    The conservative repubs now are making amends for the years that
    they got creamed by their own party members.
    Want more stories…would love to give you a complete rundown on
    what’s happening in topeka..likethe a t and t 80 million dollar
    giveaway from the state thats on all our cell phone bills…another
    crony deal.
    contact me at and subscribe to my
    newsletter. This issue is packed with explosive items and
    some very interesting comments.
    Dwight…would love to have you subscribe. Even if you are
    a right wing radical.
    have a great day…appreciate your intellectual article.
    your friend

  11. David Adkins says:

    It’s nice to be remembered.

  12. John Altevogt says:

    No one ever accused you of not having a sense of humor. Hope you’re enjoying your stay in Kentucky.

  13. rico suave says:

    Good stuff !! excellent view from an insider..

    lived on KS side for years .. now on MO side.. where Nixon & Sly are even sleazier than the sainted “mods”

  14. Brother Sunday says:'s_the_Matter_with_Kansas%3F

    I like Australia… Oh and Lawrence. Yeah, Lawrence is ok. Maybe I will go there and hunker down. Austin is to Texas as Lawrence is to Kansas. Anyone? Anyone?

  15. Willie Wildcat says:

    Thank you Mr. Sutherland!
    I remember that corrupt regime of Bob Bennett & Co. Keep writing about their immoral deeds in this area. The remnants are still around but impotent. Somehow Steve Rose has remained even after all his ‘hits’ on behalf of the Bennett mafia (remember his nasty smear campaigns on Norman Gaar, Kerry Patrick, Molly Baumgardner, even young Sam Brownback).
    They used to tell everyone that Atkins was going to be POTUS someday. And their whole group believed. His primary loss for Ks. AG was one of the most wonderful slap downs in the history of state politics. It all fell apart from there and it’s been a joy to watch the wicked get there due (ie. JCCC’s Carlsen the Molester finally got exposed).
    Please keep writing…it’s important people know of all the control that group abused. Would love to see an article on how NOBODY became a judge in JoCo without Bennett’s OK. People need to know how it worked. Kansans will get to vote to change the system for the better in the near future.
    Keep it going and God bless you.

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