Kobach grand jury proceedings launch in Douglas County; local DA assigned to case

photo by: Chris Conde/ Journal-World

The Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center is pictured in September 2018.

A grand jury was impaneled and launched an investigation this week into alleged election-related crimes by former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s office, the Journal-World has confirmed.

The first witness has testified, and the local district attorney’s office has been appointed to the case. Jurors now choose the path of the inquiry — which could be open for months — and public communications are expected to be essentially nonexistent.

As planned, Douglas County District Court Judge Kay Huff selected the jury on Tuesday, and the newly convened group heard from its first witness the same day, the witness said.

Per state law governing citizen-initiated grand juries, that witness is the person who petitioned to convene the grand jury, Lawrence resident Steven Davis. Davis said that after the jury was selected, he delivered a roughly 30-minute presentation, answered a few questions and left the courtroom before lunch.

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Kobach grand jury petitioner hopes panel will make ‘sincere effort’ to investigate

As of Friday, Davis hadn’t been subpoenaed or called back to testify again — not that he expected to be. Based on his research of state law and past grand jury proceedings in Kansas, Davis guesses jurors will get together periodically in the coming months, with attorneys doing legal work at their direction in the meantime.

As opposed to a special prosecutor, which the jury could request under state law, prosecutors on this case will be Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson and Deputy District Attorney David Melton, the DA’s office confirmed.

“Pursuant to a request by the grand jury, the Court appointed the District Attorney to assist the grand jury,” Cheryl Wright Kunard, Branson’s assistant, confirmed to the Journal-World via email.

Neither the judge’s office nor the court clerk are sharing more information about the grand jury proceedings.

Huff, in an email through her assistant, declined to confirm the status of the grand jury this week.

“Grand Jury proceedings are confidential matters and are closed to the public,” according to the judge’s office. “We may not confirm or deny any particulars, nor may we comment on the proceedings at any level.”

Any documents created by the Kobach grand jury — such as subpoenas calling witnesses to testify — won’t be filed publicly during the investigation, said Douglas Hamilton, clerk of the District Court. Hamilton said that if the grand jury’s investigation results in criminal charges, those would be filed publicly at some point.

A citizen-initiated grand jury has up to three months to complete its work, but could ask a judge to approve an extension of up to three more months, according to Kansas law.

As for typical juries, the statute says the county pays for the grand jury, including compensation for jurors, the court reporter, investigators and special counsel, if used.

Citizen-initiated grand juries are somewhat unusual, both nationally and locally.

Kansas is one of only a handful of states that allow them.

While judges and district attorneys also can request grand juries in Kansas, Douglas County has not summoned a grand jury of any kind in at least 20 years, said Hamilton, who’s been court clerk since 2000 and worked in the clerk’s office since 1998.

In his calls for the grand jury, Davis alleged that Kobach’s office failed to properly register a number of voters in 2016 who applied for registration while renewing their driver’s licenses or filling out an online form through the Kansas Department of Revenue’s website.

Davis previously told the Journal-World that his “basic, introductory presentation” would explain the background of Kansas’ online voter registration process and some of the problems with it, particularly in October 2016. He said he’d also encourage the jury to look at whether there were other issues and make suggestions about people and offices that may have answers. 

He said he hoped the jury would make a “sincere effort” to look into the allegations, because the body has more investigatory powers than he does as “just a citizen.”

Kobach, a Republican, confirmed this month that he is considering a run for the U.S. Senate in 2020, the Associated Press reported. In November, Kobach lost his bid to become governor of Kansas to Democrat Laura Kelly.

Davis ran, unsuccessfully, as a Democrat for the Kansas House in both the 2016 and 2018 elections.

After a series of attempts by Davis and rejections from local judges, the Kansas Court of Appeals ultimately ordered Douglas County to summon the grand jury in late November 2018.

Kobach’s office previously called Davis’ allegations “patently false” and accused him of using the petition process for political gain.

The office said the allegations concern a brief period in 2016 when online registration systems were malfunctioning and that election officials at both the state and county levels had worked quickly to make sure the affected voters were able to cast their ballots.

photo by: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

In this Aug. 3, 2018, file photo, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach addresses supporters during a campaign stop in Pittsburg.

Contact Journal-World public safety reporter Sara Shepherd


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