Topeka Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and her top aide are potential witnesses for a House committee investigating a Kansas Supreme Court justice's conversation about school finance with two senators, the panel's chairman said Tuesday.
Rep. Mike O'Neal said he anticipates that Sebelius and chief of staff Troy Findley would testify voluntarily. The 10-member committee plans to have its first meeting at 2:30 p.m. Thursday.
"I can't imagine they wouldn't," said O'Neal, R-Hutchinson. "I can't imagine a failure to cooperate - that would look bad."
O'Neal acknowledged that Sebelius and Findley, a former Lawrence legislator, would be "tangential" witnesses because of a March breakfast meeting at Cedar Crest in which Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, mentioned having contact with someone associated with the court on school finance issues.
"I really want to do this as benignly as possible," O'Neal said.
Sebelius spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran said the governor "would be happy to cooperate" with the committee - though Corcoran didn't say specifically that the governor would testify.
Justice Lawton Nuss
More about Justice Lawton Nuss
- Nuss gets off with warning over school finance talk
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- Communication between governor's office and Kansas judicial branch (.pdf)
- Code of judicial conduct (.pdf)
- Rules relating to judicial conduct(.pdf)
- Justice Nuss' response to the allegations (.pdf)
- KSGovernor.org: Sebelius responds to wide-ranging open records requests
- Justice Lawton Nuss biography, from Kansas Supreme Court web site
- KSCourts.org: Recusal Statement
- School Finance Proposed Expenditures Comparison (.pdf)
- 6News video: Nuss controversy ends with questionable punishment
- 6News video: Nuss meeting descends to bickering
- 6News video: Committee begins interviews in Nuss affair (06-08-06)
- 6News video: Committee begins investigation into Nuss affair (05-25-06)
- 6News video: Kansas lawmakers determine school finance plan (05-02-06)
- House panel votes to expand Nuss probe (06-09-06)
- Senator from Lawrence declines to testify for now (06-09-06)
- Senator denies court contact before Nuss lunch (06-08-06)
- Nuss says he regrets meeting (06-02-06)
- Supreme Court justices at a glance (08-20-04)
- More about the 'Nuss Fuss'
- More about the school finance case
"No one has officially gotten a request from anybody," Corcoran said.
Matt All, the governor's chief legal counsel, said Sebelius doesn't have much information to offer because "she has said what she knows."
Asked whether Sebelius has anything to hide, All said, "Absolutely not."
The committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Mike Peterson, of Kansas City, said O'Neal's comments about the Democratic governor being a witness indicate that Republicans are conducting a "fishing expedition and witch hunt."
"You've got to be kidding," Peterson said. "Who the hell is he or the House of Representatives to demand something from the governor?"
Later, Peterson said his opposition to having the governor testify was philosophical, not political.
"I don't think one branch of government should be able to compel another branch of government to do something," Peterson said.
Morris and Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina, had lunch March 1 with Justice Lawton Nuss and briefly discussed education funding. A school finance lawsuit is still before the court, and the state's code of judicial conduct prohibits justices from discussing pending cases with outsiders.
Nuss removed himself from hearings on the lawsuit on April 20, after a reporter asked whether anyone associated with court had discussed school finance with legislators.
Chief Justice Kay McFarland asked the Commission on Judicial Qualifications to investigate the matter and its examiner has filed a complaint with the commission, the first step toward potential disciplinary action.
The attorney general's office also is conducting an inquiry.
O'Neal said again Tuesday that his committee's investigation would focus on whether the conversation between Nuss and the two senators influenced the Legislature's passage of the three-year, $541 million school finance plan.
Peterson suggested the real goal is to protect the GOP. Nuss was appointed to the court in 2002 by Republican Gov. Bill Graves.
"What you've really got is a ton of Republicans caught with their hands in the cookie jar, and their fellow Republicans trying to go ahead and bail them out with some far-fetched idea that the governor may somehow be involved," he said.
Some conservative Republicans, who've opposed large increases in aid to public schools, have questioned whether there's been collusion between the court, Sebelius, her staff and legislators on school finance issues. However, they've produced no evidence and Sebelius has said she had no contact with the court.
Even so, said Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, a committee member, Sebelius' testimony would be relevant.
"Part of the nature of our inquiry is to understand how far the content of the communications between the senators and Justice Nuss spread to other government officials," Kinzer said. "I would presume that she would prefer to have the committee look into her view of events based on her own statements and not press accounts."