Topeka Private dinners that Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback hosted for lawmakers at his official residence didn't substantially violate the state's opening meetings law even though they touched upon his legislative agenda, a prosecutor said Tuesday.
Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor said technical violations of the Kansas Open Meetings Act may have occurred but that legislators had not acted in bad faith because they didn't fully understand the law.
The report from Taylor's office criticized legislators, but representatives of news organizations saw it as a hollow victory, saying they've come to expect strong words but little real enforcement of the open meetings law.
Brownback hosted seven private dinner meetings in January for members of 13 legislative committees, inviting more than 90 lawmakers. Almost all of the legislators were Republicans like Brownback. Taylor is a Democrat — something GOP lawmakers have repeatedly noted in questioning his investigation.
But Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said "the district attorney now has confirmed" no substantive violations of the law occurred.
The Kansas Open Meetings Act generally prohibits a majority of legislative bodies from discussing government business without public notice or access to the meetings. An investigation found that in some instances the lawmakers attending the dinners only had a "limited understanding" of the law, according to a 10-page report produced by Taylor's top two deputies.
"Where they found themselves at the top of a steep slippery slope, they did not step away but instead recklessly danced on the edge," the report said. "While we can conclude that none of the legislators attending the January 2012 dinners at Cedar Crest appear to have acted in bad faith, we must conclude that the legislators acted out of ignorance of the applicable law."
The report said dozens of legislators interviewed showed "a collective inability" to remember details about the gatherings. Taylor's office concluded that any violations of the open meetings law were technical.
"However, they are only technical violations by the slimmest margin," according to the report.
Senate Majority Leader Jay Emler, a Lindsborg Republican, said he's not surprised by the outcome of the investigation. He said at the one meeting he attended, he saw no violations of the open meetings law but wasn't offended by the criticism in Taylor's report.
"There are a lot of legislators who don't fully understand the meaning of the law," Emler said. "You can always do without finger wagging, but I'm not going to say the caution is inappropriate."
Taylor said he considers the matter closed in a letter to Mike Merriam, an attorney for the Topeka Capital-Journal, which published the first reports about the gathering. Merriam had filed a formal complaint, and Taylor recommended that the newspaper and the Legislature "develop protocols" to help lawmakers fully comply with the Open Meetings Act.
Merriam noted that Kansas courts and the laws itself said the Open Meetings Act is supposed to be interpreted "liberally" to promote openness.
"Yet what they're saying is that it's too close to call, so we're not going to do anything," Merriam said. "It's ridiculous."
Many of the legislators who were invited to the dinners described them as social gatherings heavy on small talk, and Brownback and his aides repeatedly said they were comfortable that no laws were violated. However, the governor also acknowledged that he called the meetings to discuss his legislative agenda and took some questions.
Violations of the Open Meetings Act are civil, not criminal, matters. Officials who knowingly break the law can be fined up to $500 per incident.