Kan. Gov. Confident Meetings Didn't Violate Law

Published February 3, 2012 6:45PM (EST)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Gov. Sam Brownback declared Friday he's confident that a local prosecutor's investigation of private gatherings he had with Kansas legislators at the governor's official residence did not violate the state's open meetings law, and he's planning two more get-togethers next week.

The Republican governor said during a Statehouse news conference that his office will provide whatever materials are requested by Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor, a Democrat. Taylor has warned Brownback and legislators in a letter to maintain records and electronic files that could be potential evidence in the investigation, urging them to "err on the side of preservation."

Brownback invited GOP lawmakers from 13 legislative committees to seven dinners in January. The governor's staff has said the events did not violate the Kansas Open Meetings Act because they were social gatherings and Brownback admonished legislators to avoid discussions that would violate the law. The Topeka Capital-Journal, which has reported extensively about the meetings, asked Taylor on Tuesday to investigate.

"We will fully cooperate with any investigation, and I am completely confident that they will show no wrongdoing," Brownback told reporters.

He has gatherings scheduled Monday and Tuesday at Cedar Crest, the official residence, but the groups of lawmakers are bipartisan and don't appear to be tied to their committee membership. He has invited 40 lawmakers to Monday's event and 36 to Tuesday's gathering, inviting 18 Democrats to each.

Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said next week's meetings will remain closed.

The Legislature's top Democrats criticized the January meetings, saying they were improper because invitations went out for a majority of members of specific committees. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat who's served more than 35 years in the Legislature, said governors have often invited lawmakers to the residence, but not by committee.

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat, said he intends to honor his invitation to Monday's event. Still, he criticized the past meetings for specific committees.

"The news media ought to be able to cover those things. Anyone from the public ought to be able to listen to what has occurred there," he said. "You just never know what kind of discussion is going to lead to some action that gets taken."

In his letter to all 40 state senators and all 125 House members, Taylor directed them to preserve not only their records, electronic files and "tangible items," but the same materials for their staffs. Taylor said Thursday night that he also sent it to Brownback's office, his secretary of administration and the administration's information technology director.

Most of the letters were distributed Friday, ahead of an afternoon news conference Taylor scheduled to discuss his investigation.

"Your efforts to identify and preserve relevant information must begin immediately, without exception or limitation," Taylor wrote.

Brownback's office noted that state law already requires it to preserve its records.

Senate Majority Leader Jay Emler, a Lindsborg Republican, who was invited to two of the meetings, said he saw them as similar to other gatherings past governors have had with legislators at Cedar Crest, the governor's residence, though he acknowledged not recalling whether previous ones involved specific committees.

Emler said legislators heard remarks from Brownback that they'd heard before in other settings, and he said a top Brownback aide was present to prevent discussions from straying into questionable territory.

"Certainly, I saw no reason not to go," Emler, an attorney, said during a news conference. "We didn't discuss any particular bills."

The Open Meetings Act generally prohibits a voting majority of a legislative body from discussing government business without giving the public notice or access to the meetings. Alleged violations are a civil matter, not a criminal one. A person found to have broken the law is subject to fines of up to $500 per incident.

The law allows the state's attorney general or a county prosecutor to subpoena witnesses and documents and compel witnesses to answer questions under oath. In an interview, Taylor likened his letter to state officials to those sent out by attorneys in civil cases telling parties to preserve potential evidence.

In a statement earlier this week, Caleb Stegall, the governor's chief counsel, said the governor himself couldn't violate the meetings law because he's an individual, not a government body. But, Stegall said, once committee members were warned that they couldn't discuss business, the dinners became informational sessions, which are permitted. He cited a 2009 opinion from then-Attorney General Steve Six.



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By Salon Staff

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