Lobbying in Kansas draws scrutiny from the FBI

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05/05/2014 11:06 PM

05/16/2014 1:45 PM

Following the 2012 primary, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and a handful of former aides, lawyers and interest groups asked lobbyists to a September fundraiser for newly nominated Republicans running for the state Senate.

“Required donation is $1,000 per race x 14 = $14,000,” the invitation said. “Make checks out to each candidate.”

The invitation drew little notice. The candidates, most of them considered conservative, had just won tough primaries and would likely welcome fresh cash for their campaigns.

Today, 13 of the 14 beneficiaries are in the Kansas Senate.

Now the invitation — and the deep interplay between lobbying and lawmaking it reflects — is part of a broad federal inquiry into possible corruption in the state capital.

Three lobbyists and a former state official have told The Star and its sister paper, The Wichita Eagle, that they have been approached by the FBI to talk about pay-to-play influence in Kansas. The Topeka Capital-Journal first revealed the probe last week.

The FBI interviews date as far back as 2012. One interview took place just a month ago, suggesting the probe is ongoing.

The FBI declined to comment, as is its policy.

Allegations of pay-to-play lobbying surface regularly in state capitals across the country, often sparking investigations that dissolve amid a lack of evidence. Brownback’s office said it isn’t unusual for some of a governor’s former associates to become lobbyists. Those lobbyists said they’re proud of their work.

The federal probe in Topeka followed a shift in Kansas lobbying business to people who have worked for Brownback. That draws new scrutiny to work they have done for a number of interest groups — health care providers, universities and especially the state’s heavily regulated casinos.

In October 2012, for example, George Stafford, a one-time aide to Brownback, registered as a lobbyist for the Kansas Star Casino near Wichita.

A month later, a second Brownback friend — one-time campaign treasurer T.C. Anderson — said he would also lobby for the casino. Its operations were under the control of a wholly owned subsidiary of Boyd Gaming in Las Vegas.

Both men are still registered as lobbyists for the casino. Additionally, both lobby for the Boot Hill Casino in Dodge City, Kan.

Anderson, currently the treasurer for the Kansas Republican Party, did not respond to phone calls or an emailed request for comment.

Stafford also declined to answer specific questions about his lobbying work.

Boyd Gaming spokesman David Strow declined to specify why his company chose Anderson and Stafford, among others, to represent the Wichita area casino.

But he said in an email that “retaining lobbyists in the states where we operate is simply a part of our normal course of business, as it is for many other companies.”

Boot Hill Casino did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Lobbying clout could be crucial to a casino operation in the state.

Gaming in Kansas is overseen by a complicated system involving the state Lottery Commission and the Racing and Gaming Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor and approved by the Kansas Senate.

Additionally, the Kansas Legislature regularly considers adjustments to gaming statutes.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. Since its opening in late 2011, the Kansas Star Casino has paid the state more than $94 million from gaming revenues.

In his lobbyist disclosure, Anderson said he would lobby on “gaming, lottery, health, taxation and transportation. All issues that would affect the gaming industry in Kansas.”

Anderson’s wife, T.L. Anderson, is the current treasurer of Brownback’s re-election campaign.

Common practice

State disclosure records show former Brownback aides now represent nearly three dozen interest groups and firms with issues before the Legislature. They include the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, the Kansas Dental Association, Cerner Corp., Burns McDonnell and the Kansas Association of Realtors.

Many of the lobbying arrangements now under the public microscope include partners in a Topeka-based firm called Parallel Strategies. The partners are former Brownback chief of staff and current campaign spokesman David Kensinger, former Brownback staff member Riley Scott, and Stafford, Brownback’s deputy chief of staff in Kansas when the governor was a U.S. senator.

All three declined to discuss their lobbying work when contacted by The Star last week. Instead, they issued a statement that said: “We have earned every client we’ve ever had. We are proud of all of them and the work we do for them.”

Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said clients “look at the new political environment after each election and they find who they think is, for the cost, the most effective lobbyist for their issue.

“There isn’t anything out of the ordinary,” he said.

Friends of previous governors have also benefited from lobbying and business contracts. The practice is common in other states and in Washington, D.C.

But a close connection between elected office holders and lobbyists can raise ethical as well as legal concerns.

It “provides insider access, at a price,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a Washington-based watchdog group.

Additionally, some longtime lobbyists said Topeka is unaccustomed to what they consider aggressively partisan approaches to influencing public policy. They said some groups may have felt subtle pressure to hire Brownback associates after his 2010 election as governor, sometimes dismissing longtime lobbyists with fewer ties to the incumbent.

“I’ve seen people who’ve been with organizations for a long time leave — and people with associations to the governor put into those positions,” said Bernie Koch, a registered lobbyist who has worked in Topeka as a reporter and lobbyist for almost four decades.

A spokeswoman for Brownback, Eileen Hawley, said the governor is often approached by businesses and industries with issues before the state government. She defended Brownback’s associations with current lobbyists.

“In a career of public service spanning decades, Gov. Brownback has worked with many talented individuals,” her statement said. “Some remain in public service, while others have joined the private sector.”

Hiring friends and associates of incumbents to lobby is as old as politics.

Any explicit demand from a politician that someone hire a specific lobbyist would likely be illegal, Holman said. Just trading on insider access isn’t necessarily illegal, but it might cross an ethical line.

To date, there is no public evidence of either, although a federal investigation suggests suspicion of improper activities in Topeka.

Changing lobbyists

Lobbying activities by former Brownback aides extend beyond gaming.

The University of Kansas, for example, hired Scott in early 2013 for $25,000 and reassigned its longtime lobbyist to other duties. At the time, the university was trying to fend off cuts to its budget.

“He had good relationships with many of the freshman senators and representatives who had just been elected, and we needed the extra assistance,” KU spokesman Tim Caboni said in an email.

Scott, the son-in-law of Kansas Senate president Susan Wagle, later picked up Pittsburg State University as a $36,000 client even though the school had not hired a lobbyist for at least four years.

“Riley fit the bill,” said school spokesman Chris Kelly. “He seemed to fit where we wanted to go.”

Wichita Area Technical College, which runs the National Center for Aviation Training, hired Scott after lawmakers cut funding for the center by $2 million last year.

It paid Parallel Strategies $30,000 for six months after employing a different lobbyist for several years.

“I’ve been in this business a long time, and it’s about relationships,” said the school’s president, Tony Kinkel. But, he said, “no one ever told us who to hire.”

The Kansas Dental Association hired Parallel Strategies this year to oppose legislation creating midlevel dental providers who could perform some of the duties now handled by dentists.

“We needed to have someone with close ties to the tea party conservative Republicans,” said Kevin Robertson, the association’s executive director.

People associated with the governor also have landed lobbying jobs with the three private companies running the state’s Medicaid program, now known as KanCare.

Scott works for United Health Services. Amerigroup Kansas hired former social services official Gary Haulmark. Matt Hickam, a former partner of Kensinger’s, now lobbies for Centene and its subsidiary, Sunflower State Health Plan.

Hickam registered as a lobbyist for Sunflower at the end of 2011, about six months before the state awarded the KanCare contracts. Scott started lobbying for United Health Services this year. He was still working for U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran when the Brownback administration awarded the KanCare contracts in June 2012.

Haulmark left the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services in October 2012, four months after the contracts were awarded. He registered as a lobbyist for Amerigroup a month later.

Both United Health Services and Amerigroup declined to answer questions about their lobbyists or about any investigation.

A spokeswoman for Sunflower said that the company wasn’t pressured to hire Hickam and that he wasn’t paid to enhance the company’s chances of getting a KanCare contract.

A public records request by The Star found that neither the governor’s office nor the two agencies overseeing KanCare were subpoenaed by federal investigators in the last two years.

Late last year, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce decided not to renew the contract of its longtime lobbyist, Republican Bob Vancrum, a former Kansas legislator.

Instead, the group hired Stafford for this year’s session.

“With new issues and a change in elected leadership, it seemed like the right time to make a change,” said an email from Kristi Smith Wyatt, the chamber’s senior vice president of public policy and programming.

Vancrum said he was not told he was being replaced by someone on friendlier terms with Brownback.

“They said they were going to go in another direction,” he recalled.

But hiring Stafford would be a good idea, Vancrum said, “given the fact that the administration is there.”

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