Archive for Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Sebelius swept into judicial controversy

May 2, 2006


Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on Monday was drawn into the expanding controversy about communications between Kansas Supreme Court Justice Lawton Nuss and Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, on the school finance lawsuit.

Morris apparently told Sebelius in March of a communication he had with someone at the court, and Sebelius did nothing about it.

"His comment was offhand and not specific, and at no time did Senator Morris refer to talking to a justice," Sebelius said. "I didn't think much of it at the time because legislators from both sides of the debate have repeatedly made comments claiming to know what the court will or won't accept."

Judges are prohibited from speaking privately to parties with interests in pending litigation.

Nuss removed himself from further proceedings in the school finance lawsuit after he divulged that he spoke about the case during a March 1 lunch with Morris and Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina.

A House committee will be appointed soon to investigate the matter, and Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Kay McFarland has asked the Commission on Judicial Qualifications to investigate. Nuss, Morris and Brungardt have said nothing substantial about the case was discussed at the lunch.

Lawmakers have spent the past year wrestling with the court's ruling that the school finance system is underfunded, especially school districts with a high proportion of low-income students.

Details emerge

Sebelius has been critical of what Nuss did since the controversy erupted. But Monday, Morris said he reminded Sebelius he had spoken to her about a communication with the court during a March 28 breakfast meeting at Cedar Crest with her, chief of staff Troy Findley and Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley.

Hensley told The Associated Press that Morris, at the meeting with Sebelius, indeed mentioned he had spoken with an unnamed justice.

But Sebelius said that wasn't the case.

Also Monday, more details emerged on how Morris spoke with fellow legislators about what was said at that March 1 lunch with Nuss and Brungardt.

The lunch came to the attention of some lawmakers on March 30, the last day of the regular legislative session, after the Senate had rejected a four-year, $495 million school finance plan proposed by Sen. Jim Barnett, R-Emporia.

The plan died on a 20-20 vote, and Barnett, a Republican candidate for governor, and his running mate, Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, sought a meeting with Morris and several others, including Sen. Roger Pine, R-Lawrence.

"I thought we were going to maybe see if we could resurrect that bill at a different level before we went home that evening," Pine said.

Barnett has said he sought the meeting to try to get one more vote for his bill, which would have put it over the top.

'Back-door' information

During the private meeting behind the Senate chamber, Morris, who had voted against the Barnett plan, said the Kansas Supreme Court wanted a three-year plan with more funding in it.

"In the course of that discussion with him and Barnett and Wagle, it came out that he had some back-door information that would indicate that," Pine said.

Barnett and Wagle then asked Morris "pointed questions" about his source of information, Pine said. Morris refused to say, he said.

"I could tell there was a greater focus on the source and how he knew that than there was trying to resolve what I thought we were going back there for, and that was to get a bill out," Pine said.

His recollection of events follows closely statements made by other senators who were there.

Barnett later told the attorney general's office, whose investigators have questioned a number of senators, including Pine. Two other senators at the meeting were Pat Apple, R-Louisburg, and Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson.

Three weeks later, Nuss announced he was removing himself from the school funding case after it became apparent news of the lunch would be publicized.

Pine said he was surprised by Morris' comments at the time of the meeting but didn't think anything improper had occurred.

"I had the impression that this was not an attempt to try to do anything inappropriate. It was an attempt to try to figure out what needed to be done to resolve the issue," Pine said.

Timeline of events involving Justice lawton Nuss, Legislature

Jan. 9: The Legislature convenes its 2006 session, facing a Kansas Supreme Court mandate to increase spending on public schools.

Feb. 2: Sen. Jim Barnett, of Emporia, seeking the Republican nomination for governor, outlines a four-year plan to phase in a $495 million increase in aid to public schools.

Feb. 23: After weeks of talks between legislative leaders and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, House leaders unveil a three-year, $500 million plan.

March 1: Supreme Court Justice Lawton Nuss has lunch at Carlos O'Kelly's, a Mexican restaurant in Topeka, with Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina, a longtime friend, and Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton. According to them, Nuss brought a spreadsheet and asked briefly about numbers for various school finance alternatives. Morris later says Nuss said a plan in keeping with past cost studies and a bipartisan proposal would be helpful.

March 2: Senate leaders unveil a three-year, $660 million school funding plan.

March 17: Sebelius meets with Morris, Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, and her chief of staff, Troy Findley, in her Statehouse office.

March 24: A coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans engineers passage of a three-year, $633 million package.

March 28: Sebelius has a breakfast meeting at Cedar Crest with Morris, Hensley and Findley. She later said Morris mentioned having contact with the court, but nothing specific, while Hensley recalls that sometime in March, Morris told him and Sebelius that he had spoken with a Supreme Court justice, who told Morris a multiyear plan would be "a good thing."

March 30: The Senate rejects three school finance proposals, including Barnett's plan. Morris votes against Barnett's plan.

March 31: Pushed in a private meeting by Barnett to justify voting against Barnett's plan, Morris tells Barnett he had contact with the court. His and Barnett's accounts differ. Barnett then brings his running mate, Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and at least four other senators into Morris' office, to have him repeat the story.

April 2: Barnett writes a letter complaining about the conversation to the U.S. Attorney's Office. It later advises him to contact the Kansas Attorney General's Office, which begins an inquiry.

April 20: A reporter asks court spokesman Ron Keefover whether there has been any contact between the court and legislators over school finance. Keefover's subsequent question to the court prompts Nuss to acknowledge his March 1 conversation and remove himself from the school finance lawsuit. The court announces Nuss' decision publicly.

April 24: Supreme Court Chief Justice Kay McFarland asks the state Commission on Judicial Qualifications to investigate Nuss.

Wednesday: Morris releases a one-page memo on the Nuss case during a caucus of GOP senators. Wagle immediately challenges his version of events.

Thursday: The Senate approves a three-year, $466 million school finance plan.

Friday: Mays announces that he plans to appoint a seven-member committee to review the Nuss case.

Saturday: The House Select Committee on School Finance endorses a three-year, $401 million education funding plan. Hensley acknowledges knowing about Morris' contact with the Supreme Court.

Monday: Morris acknowledges telling Sebelius about his contact with the court but can't recall the details.


Richard Heckler 9 years, 7 months ago

This is beginning to stink. Barnett and Wagle are looking for leverage in this upcoming election. Do Barnett and Wagle want the hide of Steve Morris as well?

xenophonschild 9 years, 7 months ago

This is not good for Kathleen. The trogs will use anything they can to smear her, to obfuscate and try to hide her solid record of accomplishments.

It will also be a test, though. Maybe our red state is ready to go a shade blue.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 9 years, 7 months ago

This is a non-issue, and most voters will get really tired of hearing about it if that's all Barnett and Wagle have to offer in their campaign.

Jamesaust 9 years, 7 months ago

Ehhh.....sounds like something that those with an interest in creating a story (journalists, die-hard no-taxers) are trying to gin up into the news equivalent of a burp.

DaREEKKU 9 years, 7 months ago

Sounds like, yet more, Republican mud slinging.

droo 9 years, 7 months ago

This will change about as many people's minds as Scalia hunting with Cheney. And what exactly is the advantage the Republicans hope to get out of this? A Democrat knew about Republican dirt and didn't do anything about it. I think they're shooting themselves in the foot--this is just going to keep reminding people about yet another Republican ethical lapse.

badger 9 years, 7 months ago

I tend to agree with Jamesaust.

Cause, you know what sounds really good as a catchy ad for your evening news during May Sweeps? "Governor implicated in judicial controversy, denies she knew about clandestine meetings. Story at ten!"

It's coming down to, "You said 'someone at the court' which could have been anyone"..."No, I totally said unnamed justice"..."No, you said someone at the court, and you're a pontificating windbag like most of your colleagues, so I figured you were trying to make bumping into the building's janitor at the grocery store sound impressive..."


KansasMan82 9 years, 7 months ago

This whole issuse is clearly being politicized and kindled by the far right. Surely this was clear to anyone who heard Sen. Wagle's overblown reaction to the meeting. This is not even a story. President Morris doesn't have an ill-intended bone in his body.

Who cares if the Silver Haired Governor was heard anything or not? Why not focus on a worth-while story like why she doesn't even bother to submit a school finance plan of her own?

xenophonschild 9 years, 7 months ago

It is the Legislature's responsibility to craft a school finance plan.

Keep in mind that, despite spending quadzillions of public monies to educate Kansas children, as soon as they get old enough and graduate, most of our best and brightest will speedily decamp for other states, other brighter employment opportunities, and leave us with the bottom 20% of graduating high school classes to run our communities.

Something to look forward to while we're moldering in nursing homes.

KansasMan82 9 years, 7 months ago

The legislature's responsibilites do not exempt the governor from her role as a leader. The governor should be expected to weigh in on budgetary issues. She has basically been given a pass from the press despite offering unbalanced budgets, and in this year, not offering her take on a reasonable school finance plan. It seems to me that an individual who has run for election in support of education would want to have some say in these issues.

She has clearly avoided voicing a workable plan to avoid taking the political blame for any sacrifices that have to be made. This has worked for the 'ol silver hair...politically.

I think we do spend enough to suitably educate the youngsters of this state. However, I don't think the implication that we discontinue attempting to properly educate students because intelligent people tend to leave is exactly brilliant.

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