Topeka Gov. Sam Brownback acknowledged Friday that he set up private meetings with Republican legislators at his official residence to discuss his agenda, but he rejected suggestions that lawmakers were invited to discuss business or that the gatherings violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act.
The Republican governor said the manager of his residence “made an inaccurate statement” by telling a GOP legislator’s office assistant that business would be discussed at a dinner at Cedar Crest. Brownback said his aides and legislators monitored such gatherings to ensure lawmakers didn’t violate the law that prohibits a voting majority of a legislative body from discussing government business without giving the public notice or access to the meetings.
Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor, a Democrat, is investigating seven gatherings in January at Cedar Crest. Brownback invited more than 90 of the state’s 165 legislators to the dinners, and some of them said he made brief remarks about legislative issues and took a few questions.
Brownback’s invitations for the January gatherings grouped lawmakers by committees. All but one of the legislators invited were Republicans, and the lone Democratic lawmaker who received an invitation has said she assumed it was a mistake and didn’t go.
“I invited people out. I was going to tell people — and did — about the legislative agenda, and I spoke about it, and I spoke a lot about it,” Brownback said during a Statehouse news conference. “That’s not inappropriate for that to take place.”
Many legislators who participated described the events as social dinners.
But in a Jan. 17 email to Rep. Joe McLeland’s office assistant, the residential manager for Cedar Crest, Rebecca Witte, wrote, “The committee members will spend some time discussing business during/immediately following dinner.”
Brownback said Witte was not in a position to offer that response.
“She kind of manages the operations at Cedar Crest,” Brownback said. “She’s not involved in any of the policy formation or work of this, of my office.”
McLeland’s assistant had emailed Witte to ask if spouses were also invited to a Jan. 24 dinner for members of the House Appropriations Committee. Witte responded that while some had attended past events, the intent was not to invite them.
Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said Witte would not give interviews because of the ongoing investigation and that the manager had speculated “far outside the scope of her knowledge.”
The email was among more than 300 pages of documents obtained from the administration Friday by The Associated Press. The Topeka Capital-Journal previously obtained the same records through an open records request and reported Witte’s email Friday.
Most of the documents were responses from legislators’ offices to invitations to the meetings in January and to two other bipartisan gatherings in February that are not under investigation. Witte’s email appears to be the only document among those released that suggests business would be discussed.
Brownback’s office said there are no records of communications between Witte and staffers in the governor’s office about the nature of the events. Jones-Sontag declined to say what documents have been turned over to Taylor’s office, citing the ongoing investigation.
Taylor has said the Kansas Open Meetings 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 typically, a case leads to an order or agreement spelling out what steps officials will take to avoid future violations.
Senate Majority Leader Jay Emler, a Lindsborg Republican who attended one of the January meetings, said Friday that the disclosure of Witte’s email doesn’t change his view that the gatherings were social events.
Emler said Brownback did briefly discuss his agenda for the year.
“So that could be construed as business,” Emler said. “In terms of negotiating the nitty-gritty stuff, I didn’t see it as that kind of business — that we would do in committee.”