Under scrutiny for Koch connection, KU director sues over records; judge blocks release

Art Hall, director of the Center for Applied Economics at Kansas University, testifies to the House Tax Committee in this file photo from January 2010.

A judge on Thursday swiftly blocked Kansas University from releasing a lecturer’s correspondence, which a student group requested to learn more about his ties to the Koch brothers.

The action came hours after the lecturer, Art Hall, filed a lawsuit in Douglas County District Court seeking an injunction against KU, which had planned to hand over the records on Friday.

Hall is founding executive director of the Center for Applied Economics, a public policy think-tank within KU’s School of Business. Previously he was chief economist for the Public Sector Group of Koch Industries Inc.

In the lawsuit, Hall argues that the Kansas Open Records Act does not apply to his correspondence because it is “not related to functions, activities, programs or operations funded by public funds, but rather, private funds.” He states that his position with the Center for Applied Economics is “self funded” and responsible for fundraising needed to sustain it.

He also argues that releasing the documents would violate his rights to academic freedom.

KU’s position is that regardless of who funds Hall’s job, he is a KU employee and therefore the open records act does apply to his correspondence, said Tim Caboni, KU Vice Chancellor of Public Affairs.

“We were very careful to make sure that we did protect professor Hall’s academic freedom, meaning we’re not going to release any discussion of research in progress,” Caboni said. “It also took us a great deal of time because of the volume of email included in the request, but also because we had to redact some information.”

The Koch Foundation has donated millions of dollars to KU. Details about its relationship with the Center for Applied Economics and Hall’s position are part of what the group Students for a Sustainable Future is trying to learn more about.

Group president Schuyler Kraus, a KU senior, said students are concerned that Charles and David Koch, conservative activist billionaires who own Wichita-based Koch Industries, are inappropriately influencing academia by “buying” their way into KU and other colleges.

Students for a Sustainable Future requested Hall’s correspondence and other records earlier this year and, in September, paid $1,800 for KU to produce them. They received some documents last week. Caboni said the university is still working to prepare others.

Judge Robert Fairchild’s temporary restraining order blocks KU from releasing any more of the requested documents for now.

Kraus said she was surprised and disappointed that her group’s request had come to the point of litigation.

“I think it’s telling,” she said. “It just seems more obvious that there’s something going on that they want to hide.”

The Journal-World was unable to reach Hall or his attorney Thursday afternoon.

Tonya Mullins, director of communications and marketing at the Charles Koch Institute, shared a general statement with the Journal-World via email earlier this week.

“Our grants to universities are made in line with university policies regarding hiring and curriculum,” she said. “We support the academic freedom of faculty to make those decisions.”