Bedbugs, fleas and mice tormented employees who languished in outmoded and deteriorating furnishings inside the Docking State Office Building.
The workers washed their hands with worm-filled water that flowed through rusty pipes, struggled to get comfortable with inconsistent temperatures in their office spaces and hoped to avoid getting stuck in the frequently faulty elevators.
For former Gov. Sam Brownback, the long-neglected conditions of Docking provided an excuse to demolish the historic structure with a Democrat's name on the west side of the Capitol. The wrecking ball also would have taken out the heating and air conditioning systems in the bowels of Docking that serve the Capitol complex.
Brownback alienated legislators by discreetly orchestrating plans to build a new power plant and relocate more than 1,000 Docking employees. A review of long-term leases signed by the Brownback administration shows they contain severe penalties for early termination and commit the state to pay millions in yearly rent bills through the 2040s.
Documents secured through Kansas Open Records Act requests show belated requests for modifications to these leased offices resulted in contract amendments that enlarged the state's financial burden.
"The lease agreements raise a lot of questions as to whether they are in the best interest of the state," said Ashley All, spokeswoman for Gov. Laura Kelly.
Some Republican and Democratic lawmakers believed Brownback was motivated by the opportunity to hand out favors to cronies who could benefit from the financing of new office spaces where the Docking employees landed.
"They made real estate commissions, and I think it was all part of the good old boy network that was very prevalent in the Brownback administration," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Democrat from Topeka.
Smoldering in the rubble of Brownback's scheme to erase Docking is the reality that the building's future remains unresolved long after the governor's departure.
Lawmakers made their distrust of Brownback clear when they adopted a budget provision that forbids the Kansas Department of Administration to make firm plans for the building's future. With Kelly in office, the Legislature appears ready to loosen the shackles and allow the Democrat's administration to draft proposals to consider next year.
The ideas range from full to partial renovation of Docking, with the removal or mothballing of top floors, and the pursuit of private partners who could use excess space for retail, dining or upscale apartments.
“We’re going to have to come up with a new plan and re-evaluate the whole project,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican and vocal critic of Brownback’s dealing on Docking.
Topeka developer Robert Zibell spent nearly $5 million to renovate a former Dillons grocery store in southwest Topeka to meet office needs of the Kansas Department of Revenue, which required a post-Docking location with public parking for driver's license renewals and space for motorcycle training.
By crafting a 25-year lease with the Brownback administration, Zibell could secure financing while keeping the state's rent payments low.
Before signing, Zibell discovered administration officials inserted a nearly overlooked clause that would have allowed the state to back out of the deal with a six-month notice at any time. The developer convinced Brownback officials to replace that severance clause with a deal that would require the state to pay the cost of the grocery store remodel and financing from the bank, a total of $8.6 million, if the Legislature ever decides to eliminate funding for the lease.
After the contract on the former Dillons store was signed, Zibell said, state officials asked for $50,000 in moving expenses. Then, in a demand that felt like "extortion" to Zibell, they upped the request to $100,000 shortly before moving in.
“I guarantee you, you can’t trust these people," Zibell said. "They were trying to pull a slick deal.”
Nick Jordan, the revenue secretary at the time, informed the agency’s 800 employees in July 2014 they were leaving Docking. They would end up divided between Zibell's property and the Mills and Scott buildings in downtown Topeka.
Also downtown, 240 employees in the Kansas Department for Children and Families moved from Docking to the Athene building.
Under four contracts for office space to accommodate all the employees at Docking, the state agreed to pay rent that starts in the range of $15.25 per square foot and gradually increases to as much as $22 per square foot by the end of the 25-year terms.
The contracts were signed by James Clark, the secretary of administration at the time, for spaces ranging from 53,000 square feet at the Scott building to 86,700 square feet at Athene. Quarterly installments add up to more than $4 million in annual rent for the four properties.
Amendments to the deals escalated costs. The Athene contract was amended to add security guards for an expense of $1,325 per week. At the Zibell building, the state paid to add 1,400 square feet of office space, plus lighting, signage and parking spaces.
Every deal requires the state to pay back a prorated cost of building improvements for early departure. As a practical matter, Zibell said, the state can’t break the lease anyway because uncertainty would scare away future business partners.
“They can talk about it all they want,” Zibell said, “but if they do that, they’re going to shoot themselves in the foot for any future development by any developers if they realize the state of Kansas’ word is not good.”
Brownback officials told lawmakers the renovation of Docking would cost $84.5 million, and the abatement of asbestos and demolition would cost just $6.3 million. Moving out would save money in the long run, they said.
Rep. John Alcala, a Topeka Democrat who serves on a bipartisan panel that oversees state building contracts, said Brownback’s plans made him wonder, “What the hell is he doing?”
“I call them forever leases because we’re never going to get out from them,” Alcala said. “We’ll all be dead by the time we see a cost savings.”
The administration didn't want to stop with Docking. Clark proposed selling the Landon and Eisenhower buildings, also adjacent to the Statehouse, to private landlords who would then lease the properties back to the state.
Mike Morse, a Topeka real estate broker at Kansas Commercial, defended the privatization of office space in light of the Legislature’s track record of underfunding building maintenance.
After the state emptied Docking, Morse said, lease rates spiked in the Topeka real estate market. The state is still paying rates below $16 per square foot for the former Docking employees, Morse said, while the market value is closer to $19 per square foot.
“It was the correct thing to do financially,” Morse said. “They just didn't communicate well, which is what that administration did. They thought they could bully and get their way.”
'Hell for stout'
For the Brownback administration, Docking became a place where crews could be dispatched to a vacant floor to spray paint the governor’s furniture, an activity that set off fire alarms in June 2015.
The basement was a place to stash $10 million worth of new but unused IT equipment behind locked doors.
Hensley, the Topeka Democrat, said the the building’s name had a lot to do with Brownback’s interest in destroying the place.
The iconic 12-story structure with its 1,986 green-tinted windows was named for Robert Docking, the Democrat who became the state’s 38th governor in 1967. His father also served as Kansas governor, and his daughter-in-law, Jill Docking, opposed Brownback in the 1996 U.S. Senate race. She enlisted as the running mate to Democrat Paul Davis when they unsuccessfully challenged Brownback for re-election as governor in 2014.
“The Brownback administration systematically decided to do away with state buildings or change things that had Democrat names on them,” Hensley said.
With Docking seemingly destined for destruction, the Topeka Landmarks Commission tried to save the building, which opened in 1957, by nominating it for the National Register of Historic Places.
Paul Post, an attorney and member of the commission, said the Docking design was cutting edge for the 1950s, with carved marble and sculptures embedded in the exterior. He heard talk that Brownback wanted to turn it into a parking lot.
“We’ve had plenty of that in Topeka," Post said. "I didn’t think we need to do it again.”
Legislators revolted in 2016 to halt Brownback’s deconstruction program. The catalyst was a lease-purchase deal to build a new power plant north of the Statehouse and replace the heating and cooling system beneath Docking, which stood in the way of demolition. The $20 million contract was signed in December 2015 but left out of the budget Brownback submitted at the start of the 2016 session.
Lawmakers from both parties condemned the administration for sidestepping legislative oversight to pull off the deal, which was financed by Bank of America. In preceding months, the estimated cost for the new energy center was pegged at $12 million.
Under pressure from lawmakers, Brownback’s administration backed out of the deal, paying $2 million for expenses incurred and profits guaranteed to McCarthy Construction, of Leawood. Termination of the financing agreement cost $400,000.
In 2017, a bipartisan panel commissioned McGowan Gordon Construction, with offices in Manhattan and Kansas City, Mo., to tour Docking and develop a report on its potential uses. Although the structure badly needed to be modernized, its bones were solid.
“It is built so hell for stout they cannot implode it,” said Ross Freeman, president of the Pioneer Group, which owns the Dillon House across the street from Docking.
Freeman and others have expressed interest in preserving the building through public-private partnerships. Topeka architect Jeffrey Terrell has drawn up a “bold new design” to spur conversation. In Iowa, retired lawyer Vernon Weems still wants to buy the property, even after the Brownback administration’s response to overtures left him feeling like an unattractive prom date.
“You guys have a backbone there to jump-start anything you want,” Weems said. “All you need is some people willing to sing the right song.”