Smoke and mirrors



Kansas City:



(Courtesy of  Cashill Newsletter - June 7, 2000 )

By Jack Cashill

To clear a place for me to sit, Philip Klein picks up a life-size gorilla suit off the couch and throws it in a pile in the corner. I place my Coke alongside a miniaturized circus tent, and we begin to talk. About Oz.

As manager of the world's largest magic shop, Klein can detect a sleight of hand from the cheap seats. Sleight of hand is what he sees in the proposed Oz theme park. And the cheap seats is where he sits--a musty office, shrouded in the inevitable faux wood paneling, amidst absurdly deep piles of news clippings and circus paraphernalia, about as far from the centers of Johnson County power as a non-homeless person can be.

Klein is slight, good natured, over-eager, and stunningly boyish for a guy of forty. On an 83 degree day he wears rumpled corduroys and a flannel shirt that should have been given to the blind about 15 washes ago. If Klein's presence is not enough to nettle the self-important, his voice surely must. The good Lord has blessed Klein with the most annoying pipes in North America.

When excited, which is always, Klein sounds as if he's talking through a toilet paper roll. On radio talk shows, where sound is the only medium, the voice lasers in like a one pronged fork against the listener's inner blackboard.

Despite his modest resources, Klein has taken it upon himself to sue the Kansas Development Finance Authority (KDFA) for failure under public disclosure law to grant access to key Oz documents. To accomplish this Klein has hired attorney Jeff Carey, a pleasant young guy who helps filter some of the more entertaining screech out of Klein's accusations. He never quite succeeds.

In a rough paraphrase of Winston Churchill, very rough, Klein calls the proposed $771 Oz theme park, "a scam within a scam within a scam." The question he and Carey both pose is where is the money coming from. They draw diagrams from one cut-out securities company to another with detours through the Cayman Islands, and despite their best efforts, they still can not come up with a satisfactory answer.

At first blush, one thinks Klein delusional. The developer, Hollywood entertainment lawyer Robert Kory, is a major player, one who has secured the blessing of the Kansas state legislature and much of the Johnson County power elite for a Disney World scale project on 9,000-plus acres of prime public land in Johnson County. As to Klein, he is just some unknown clown. (Literally. He graduated from Ringling Brothers Clown College.) Still, Klein does know a good deal about illusion, and when he pulls back the Oz curtain, one gets a better view of the would be wizard behind it..

A one time Transcendental Meditation honcho, Kory first surfaced in the Kansas City area in 1989 as part of the Sandstone Entertainment Group. In 1991, he joined up with former Lieutenant Governor Dave Owen and restaurateur Gus Fasone to launch a 550 acre, OZ-oriented theme park in western KCK. Projected cost $150-$300 million.

1991 must have been a busy year for a lawyer in Kory's position. While guiding one set of partners on the road to Oz, he was cleaning up after the other set back in KCK. The Sandstone Entertainment Group reported losses of $600,000 that year and filed for Chapter 11 protection. Wyandotte County auditor Bob Brown asked to see the financial records in June of 1991, but as of January 1992, "They were still not forthcoming." If it takes one magician to spot another, Klein marvels at Kory's ability to keep his audience in suspense.

At the same time, the Sandstone group was also mismanaging Memorial Hall in KCK and were soon enough evicted from the premises. Kory acknowledged problems but blamed his partners. Said Kory, "I was not allowed to set the quality."

At about the same time Sandstone was in free fall, Kory and friends managed to secure $450,000 in public money from KCK and the Board of Public Utilities for a feasibility study for Oz. In February of 1993, they received $100,000 more. Just a few months after the second grant, the group had to remove partner Dave Owen from the project when he was convicted of federal income tax fraud. Bummer.

In 1995, the $550,000 became an issue in the KCK Mayor's race. A mailer was sent around the county accusing the Oz group of "thievery," claiming that the money had been spent for a KCK steakhouse. What gave this unfounded claim legs, as The Star reported, was that "no audit of the Oz company finances or accounting of the grant funds has ever been made public." Before Kory could pull this rabbit out of his hat, the FBI was brought in to investigate.

Kory's partner in both Sandstone and Oz, Gus Fasone, claimed that the money to remodel his "Oz-themed country western music bar and grill" came not from the $550,000 grant but from a $300,000 Small Business Administration (SBA) loan. One might wonder why the SBA would risk so much public money on so bizarre a decorating scheme, but the agency did substantiate Fasone's claim. And the FBI dropped its investigation.

After a few years of meandering, when even the politicos in KCK had wearied of his act, Kory polished up his magic show and took it on the road. In 1998, he somehow managed to convince the U.S. Army, the General Service Administration, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the Kansas Development Finance Authority, and the Kansas legislature to give him first crack at the nearly 15 square mile patch of prime suburban real estate once occupied by the Sunflower Ammunition plant. This, the legislature did by enabling the KDFA to authorize some $250 million in STAR bonds.

A slow motion look at this most astonishing of tricks might be in order. Here's this cryptic character from LA, Kory, with so little visible money he makes Miles Prentice look like Donald Trump. He has no experience in developing theme parks and a dubious track record in developing anything even by Wyandotte County standards. He proposes to create a park that must somehow capture twice the annual attendance of Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun combined to prosper. And for as little as $30 million in clean up costs, without any competitive bidding, he's awarded a Lenexa-sized chunk of real estate with an estimated street value of nearly $1.5 billion. David Copperfield, jump back.

To be fair, the Kansas House finally sensed that maybe this wasn't such a great deal after all and threatened to repeal the $250 million bond authorization. But before a final vote could be taken, the 119,000 voter strong Kansas AFL-CIO weighed in and changed the thinking of some 18 legislators overnight. The measure promptly crashed.

Philip Klein does not accuse Kory and associates of illegality. What he sees instead is the most epic and intricate public-private cluster backscratch in recent history. With the legislature neutered, it is now left to super citizens like Klein to figure out who's scratching whom and how much it's going to cost Kansas taxpayers before the blood finally runs dry.

In the meantime, the backscratchers will read flattering editorials about themselves, give each other awards, snicker at Klein and others like him, and think of new ways to risk public money on their own private interests--before Oz, as Klein predicts, eventually goes up in smoke.  



Posted: June 7, 2000
Cashill Newsletter
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Editor's note: Jack Cashill is Ingram's Executive Editor and has affiliated with the magazine for 25 years. He can be reached at


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