Medieval theologians argued about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.
Kansas officials are grappling with the equally arcane question of how many hors d'oeuvres and how much prime rib make a snack a meal.
"There needs to be a clear definition," said Carol Williams, executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.
Williams said Tuesday that she'll ask her bosses to come up with such a definition because state employees need to know how much lobbyists and state agency contractors can fete them without running afoul of the law. The commission meets again next month.
The question arose earlier this month when GTECH, the company that runs the state's online lottery, played host to Christmas receptions for Kansas Lottery employees in Topeka, Wichita and Great Bend.
The receptions included cocktails, hors d'oeuvres and chicken-and-prime-rib buffets, followed by cheesecake desserts.
Lottery officials insist their employees were legally snacking, not illegally dining, because there weren't enough chairs for everyone to sit while eating. The employees were not served. They had to walk themselves through buffet lines.
Lottery Executive Director Ed Van Petten said the agency's lawyer, Keith Kocher, an assistant attorney general assigned to the lottery, called Williams Nov. 14 to ask beforehand if the receptions would be legal.
Kocher followed up their conversation with a Nov. 15 letter, letting Williams know GTECH would be providing "a ballroom at a local hotel, food and beverages, and entertainment in the form of a roving magician."
In the letter, Kocher assured Williams the receptions would be legal because:
"The ballroom will have some seating, but not enough for all expected to attend, and there will be no formal 'sit down' meal served (there will be a buffet line and/or self-service food provided)."
Williams did not respond to Kocher's letter, causing lottery officials to assume the receptions would be OK.
"We presumed we were in compliance and acting in good faith," Van Petten said of the GTECH-hosted fests.
But Williams said she thought the buffets would feature "finger foods," not entrees such as prime rib. She also did not know the buffets would follow hors d'oeuvres.
"I don't think snacks follow hors d'oeuvres," she said. "Most people follow hors d'oeuvres with a meal."
Though Williams said she does not remember her conversations with Kocher, she said she often advises callers to avoid meal-type settings by purposely not having enough seating (causing state employees to "graze" rather than dine) and to rely on self-serve buffets rather than waiters.
"That's what we tell people to keep them out of trouble, but it's not the law. It's not official," Williams said. "I hate to get into the business of planning people's menus, but it looks like we've reached a point where we're going to have to be more specific than we are now."
The purpose of meal bans, as explained in a Gov. Bill Graves' executive order that preceded the law, is to prevent the use of dining as a pretext for access to public officials.
Van Petten's predecessor, Greg Ziemak, was well-known for prohibiting lottery employees from accepting anything not even a doughnut from GTECH.
The law, apparently not plain enough to assist menu planning, clearly prohibits state officials from soliciting gifts or hospitality. Van Petten told the Journal-World he couldn't remember how the idea of the GTECH Christmas parties came up but that he agreed to them as a means of thanking lottery employees for their work.
Williams said she has no plans to cite or warn GTECH or the lottery.
"It appears there was a good-faith effort on their part to comply," she said.
Outgrowth of order
The meal-ban law, passed in 1999, is an outgrowth of an executive order issued by Graves in 1996, prohibiting his staff, Cabinet officers, most unclassified employees and members of state boards and commissions from accepting "any gift," "free or discount travel" or "free or special discount meals." The law does not apply to legislators.
Both Graves' order and the law allow exceptions for "soft drinks, coffee and snack foods."
Don Brown, the governor's press secretary, said Graves will let the nine-member ethics commission sort through the confusion.
"That's the ethics commission's job and he supports letting them do their job," Brown said.
Some lobbyists and contractors take a more cautious approach than GTECH.
"This whole thing is so open to interpretation, we've pretty much decided that it's best to avoid any appearance of not complying with the law by not doing much in the way of hospitality," said Tom Whitaker, executive director of the Kansas Motor Carriers Assn.