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Archive for Thursday, June 8, 2006

Senator denies court contact before Nuss lunch

June 8, 2006

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— Senate President Steve Morris' contact with the Kansas Supreme Court on school finance issues might be more extensive than previously disclosed, according to sworn statements from senators released Wednesday.

But Morris said the suggestion isn't true, telling The Associated Press, "I don't really know where that's coming from."

Sens. Pat Apple, R-Louisburg, and Jim Barnett, R-Emporia, weren't specific about the dates, but their statements suggested Morris' first disclosures about court contacts were before a March 1 luncheon conversation with Justice Lawton Nuss.

A House committee is investigating whether that conversation involving Nuss, Morris and Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina, influenced approval of a three-year, $541 million school finance plan.

The attorney general's office launched an inquiry in April, taking statements from Morris, R-Hugoton, and other senators, and it released most of those statements to the committee.

Apple and Barnett were to testify Thursday about what Morris told them about his contact with the court and his statements that someone associated with the court said it preferred a bipartisan plan of a certain size. An education funding lawsuit is before the court, which must approve the school funding plan.

Morris has acknowledged the lunch and said Wednesday, "The only contact I've had was with the justice on March 1."

In his statement, Barnett said Morris told him "early in the 2006 legislative session" that he and the governor's office were aware "of communications with the court" concerning what would satisfy it. Barnett didn't indicate a specific date.

In his statement, Apple said he and Morris had a conversation "possibly in February" in which Morris acknowledged having "backdoor communication" with the court.

In an interview with an attorney general's investigator, Morris mentioned only a single contact with an unnamed court employee, describing it as "back channel."

Also in that interview, Morris contradicted other senators' accounts, saying he never told them he had received assurances that the court would accept a school finance plan if it met certain conditions.

"He indicated that if individuals understood him to make such representations, that they were mistaken," the investigator's report said.

The attorney general's office launched its inquiry because Barnett complained about what Morris had told him. Morris repeated his story during several meetings in his office on March 31, the day after the Senate rejected three school finance plans, including one sponsored by Barnett.

Justices are prohibited from discussing pending cases with outsiders. Nuss removed himself from the lawsuit April 20. He still faces an ethics complaint.

Morris said he and Brungardt haven't decided whether they will testify or answer written questions from the committee.

Chairman Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, said the committee probably will quiz 10 to 15 witnesses, adding, "I'm not interested in extending this any longer than necessary."

He said the committee may rely more on sworn depositions than witnesses appearing before the panel, which plans to meet July 5-6 and July 12-13.

O'Neal said the schedules of witnesses and the 10 committee members will be hard to mesh and that submitting written questions may be the way to go.

"The practical problem is getting us all together. The charge of the committee is to seek the truth, and I don't know if that requires a face-to-face visit with the committee," O'Neal said.

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