Topeka Gov. Sam Brownback raised issues such as tax cuts and water policy in private meetings with legislators at his official residence, several lawmakers said Monday, although their accounts differed about the details.
Brownback opened a dinner gathering Monday evening with two dozen legislators to an Associated Press reporter and photographer, and the event was consistent with descriptions of past events given earlier in the day by many of the 16 lawmakers interviewed. After a buffet-style dinner, Brownback’s remarks touched on legislative issues, such as taxes, education funding and water policy, mentioning a few specific proposals and taking a few questions.
Brownback had seven meetings in January for Republicans on 13 legislative committees, inviting more than 90 lawmakers in all. Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor, a Democrat, is investigating whether the gatherings violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act. He has said the legality of the meetings depends upon whether legislators discussed substantive legislative issues and how much interaction there was among them.
The governor has said he’s confident the meetings did not violate the law. Asked afterward whether Monday evening’s session was typical, he said, “It wouldn’t be unusual.”
When Brownback was asked about individual meetings in January, spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag, interrupted, saying, “I don’t think we can address specifics about meeting since the investigation’s going on.”
The Open Meetings Act generally prohibits a voting majority of a legislative body from discussing government business without giving the public notice or access to the meetings. Taylor has said the act does not apply to Brownback as an individual, and alleged violations are a civil matter, not a criminal one. A person found to have knowingly broken the law can be fined up to $500 per incident.
Monday evening’s meeting differed from previous ones because the legislators invited didn’t appear to be tied to any specific committees. Also, eight Democrats were in the group, including House Minority Leader Paul Davis, of Lawrence, who said he saw no Open Meetings Act violations.
“I think we’re all safe,” Davis said.
Legislator-guests sipped wine and ate a dinner of bacon-wrapped sirloin, carrots and roasted new potatoes, sitting in chairs in the first-floor living room and adjacent sunroom because the governor’s residence, Cedar Crest, doesn’t have a big enough formal dining room. Brownback and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer chatted up the lawmakers, also eating with trays in their laps.
Brownback’s administration has said the Cedar Crest meetings were social occasions, but it also has said top aides were present to keep legislators from having discussions that might violate the meetings law. At Monday evening’s event, Brownback mentioned the act and asked Reps. Jan Pauls, a Hutchinson Democrat, and Lance Kinzer, and Olathe Republican, both attorneys, to make sure it was observed.
In discussing taxes and education funding, Brownback kept his remarks general. But he mentioned a proposal to use new gambling revenues to pay off bonds issued previously by the state, and proposals on water policy. Colyer briefly discussed the administration’s push to overhaul the state’s $2.9 billion Medicaid program, which provides health coverage for the poor, disabled and elderly.
In interviews earlier in the day, some Republican legislators who’d attended earlier events described similar dinners, with Brownback making remarks and taking questions. But their accounts differed as to how general Brownback’s remarks were and how many questions he received, and a few said they remember the events only as social occasions.
Taylor sent a letter last week to Brownback’s office and all legislators, directing them to maintain records and electronic files that could be potential evidence, urging them to “err on the side of preservation.” His letter rankled House Speaker Mike O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican and attorney, who said Taylor should have worked through legislative leaders to get information.
O’Neal has urged colleagues not to respond immediately to Taylor’s letter, and he’s noted that the Kansas Constitution protects lawmakers from facing subpoenas in civil cases while they’re in session. He and Senate President Steve Morris, a Hugoton Republican, said they’re consulting with legislative attorneys on a response to Taylor’s letter.
“My hope is that we would have one response to the district attorney,” O’Neal said.
Taylor said he’s puzzled by O’Neal’s reaction and hopes legislators will avoid “hiding behind legislative immunity.”
Taylor wrote, “we do not believe that this needs to be an adversarial investigation.”
Several legislators said they don’t have materials or files to preserve as evidence, outside of the invitations from the governor’s office — and some said they threw them away soon afterward, as they normally do. Senate Majority Leader Jay Emler, a Lindsborg Republican, said if he had any emails related the meetings, they probably were deleted before Taylor’s letter arrived Friday.
“I get — literally — 30,000 emails a year,” Emler said. “I don’t keep them all.”