Topeka — Democratic lawmakers Thursday said an official investigation may be necessary into closed meetings between Atty. Gen. Phill Kline and conservative members of the State Board of Education.
"He needs to come clean," Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka said of Kline. "The attorney general's credibility and integrity is really on the line here."
Kline, a Republican and the state's top law enforcement official, defended his actions through a spokesman.
"We know we didn't violate the Kansas Open Meetings Act," Whitney Watson said.
The dispute is over meetings Kline held Tuesday with conservative members of the education board.
The 10-member board is split with conservatives holding a 6-4 majority over moderates.
Under the state's open meeting law, meetings with a majority of a quorum of a public board must be held in public. A quorum on the education board is six members, and a majority of that is four.
Kline held two meetings with three members each.
Hensley and Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said Kline's maneuver was a circumvention of the law.
But Watson said having the two meetings complied with the law.
"You either follow the law or you don't, and the law was adhered to," he said.
But the Democrats said Kline may have run afoul of a 1998 legal opinion from the Attorney General's Office.
That opinion states that it is a violation of the open meetings law to hold a series of meetings that collectively would total a quorum of board members and where a common topic of discussion occurs.
Kline has said he complied with that portion of the law by not conveying discussion from one meeting to the other. Davis said he doubted that was the legal standard of compliance.
Meanwhile, Mike Merriam, a Topeka media attorney, said that while Kline skirted the law, it may be the Education Board members who attended the meetings who would be held culpable if a violation of the law was determined.
"They're the ones that had the meeting," he said.
Board member Kenneth Willard of Hutchinson was one of those who attended the meetings. He said he didn't believe they were illegal meetings.
Kline invited him, Education Board Chairman Steve Abrams of Arkansas City and Vice Chair John Bacon of Olathe, to the first meeting. It lasted about 15 minutes in Kline's office, Willard said.
"I would certainly intend not to do that," Willard said of violating the open meetings law. "We are very careful about that. Even when we go to lunch it's no more than three of us," he said.
At the meetings, Kline has said he discussed school finance litigation and a proposal to put stickers on science textbooks that say evolution is a theory, not a fact.
But Hensley and Davis said they may ask Shawnee County Dist. Atty. Robert Hecht to investigate what happened.
Hensley and Davis also accused Kline of being hypocritical by publicizing his proposals to strengthen the open meetings law and then having closed meetings.
"He'll talk the talk but I'm not sure he is willing to walk the walk," Davis said.
Meanwhile, Derrick Sontag, a former Kline staffer and now executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, came to Kline's defense. "This is nothing but party politics being played here," he said.