Topeka — A veteran Republican in the Kansas Senate accused a Democratic district attorney Tuesday of conducting a “political fishing expedition” for issuing subpoenas to seven legislators to force them to answer questions about private dinner meetings lawmakers had with GOP Gov. Sam Brownback.
Sen. Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, was among the seven GOP legislators subpoenaed late last month in Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor’s investigation of seven dinners in January at Cedar Crest, the governor’s official residence. Brownback invited members of 13 House and Senate committees, including Wagle, almost all of them fellow Republicans.
Taylor spokesman Lee McGowan said Wagle and Sen. Bob Marshall, of Fort Scott, received subpoenas, as did Reps. Anthony Brown, of Eudora; Rob Bruchman, of Overland Park; Steve Brunk, of Bel Aire; Virgil Peck, of Tyro, and Scott Schwab, of Olathe. However, McGowan said, Bruchman and Schwab were later released from their subpoenas.
McGowan said Brunk and Peck have already submitted to interviews, and the subpoenas to Marshall and Brown order them to appear in district court Thursday to answer questions. Wagle said the attorney general’s office, which is representing lawmakers, is arranging for her to answer questions later by phone because she doesn’t want to travel while undergoing treatments for cancer this summer.
Taylor launched his investigation in February into whether the gatherings violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act. Brownback’s office said Tuesday that he’s confident the gatherings didn’t violate any laws. Wagle, who attended two dinners in January, said Taylor and his staff are “not going to find anything.”
“It’s a political fishing expedition,” Wagle said. “It’s a huge waste of time, energy and resources.”
McGowan declined to respond to Wagle’s comments.
The district attorney’s staff had attempted to interview legislators before lawmakers ended their annual session. Lawmakers had to agree to answer questions, because the state constitution shielded them from being subpoenaed while they were in session.
Schwab said he was released from his subpoena after submitting a statement saying he didn’t attend one of the dinners. Wagle said she didn’t answer questions previously because she was busy. Brown, who also attended two dinners, said potential times for interviews “never meshed up with my schedule.”
Marshall, Bruchman, Brunk and Peck didn’t return telephone messages seeking comment Tuesday.
The Open Meetings Act prohibits a voting majority of a legislative body from discussing government business without giving the public notice or access to the meetings.
Taylor said at the outset of his investigation that the act does not apply to Brownback as an individual and that the alleged violations are civil, not criminal, matters. Officials who knowingly break the law can be fined up to $500 per incident, but a case typically leads to an order of agreement spelling out what steps officials will take to avoid future violations.
Brownback invited more than 90 of the state’s 165 legislators to the January dinners, grouping them by committee membership. The one Democrat invited has said she assumed it was a mistake and didn’t attend.
The governor acknowledged in March that he set up the meetings to discuss his agenda for this year’s legislative session, did “most of the talking” and took questions and comments. He has dismissed criticism that the gatherings were business meetings, and many lawmakers who attended them have described them repeatedly as social gatherings.
Wagle, who has served in the Legislature since 1991, said she’s been to events at Cedar Crest in four administrations designed “to build relationships with legislators.”
“Every event I’ve ever been to is social,” she said. “Yes, a governor might mention a legislative issue, but there is no strategy discussed.”