Shawnee County prosecutors have begun an investigation into whether legislators violated the state’s open meetings law when they attended dinners at the governor’s mansion.
Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor and his staff are trying to sort out whether the gatherings at Gov. Sam Brownback’s Cedar Crest home were social or whether government business was transacted that should have been open to the public.
Taylor, a Democrat, is responding to a complaint brought by the Topeka Capital-Journal newspaper, which contends that business was discussed in violation of the law.
“Basically, it’s going to be an individual by individual process to determine who has knowledge. It’s going to be a painstaking process,” Taylor said.
Last month, Brownback invited dozens of Republican lawmakers — many of whom are on a committee that will vet his tax and school plans — to dinners at the mansion. In some instances, a majority of the committee members attended the meetings.
The governor, for example, invited all the Republican members of the House education, taxation and appropriations committees to the dinners, according to invitation lists provided by the governor’s office.
In the Senate, all the Republicans on the tax committee were invited to a dinner, as were GOP members of the education committee.
In all, seven meetings were held last month. Two more are scheduled for next week.
Brownback said Friday that he is cooperating with the investigation.
“I am completely confident that they will find no wrongdoing,” the governor said.
The governor’s counsel, Caleb Stegall, sent a four-page response to the district attorney on Friday. In the letter, Stegall outlined how Brownback used the dinners to highlight his major policy initiatives laid out in his State of the State speech.
“The law does not prohibit this and, in my view, we would be well advised not to create an atmosphere of fear through the presumption that (open meetings) violations may lurk around every legislative corner,” Stegall wrote.
Violating the law is a civil penalty that carries a fine of up to $500 for each violation. Any action taken in a meeting that doesn’t comply with the law could be void.
However, Taylor acknowledged that proving a violation occurred will be difficult because he will be relying on lawmakers being honest with him about their own actions. Whether anyone will be subpoenaed will depend on how cooperative witnesses are, Taylor added.
But Taylor acknowledged that a group of lawmakers gathered together does not necessarily mean they violated the open meetings law.
“There are multiple events where every member of the Kansas Legislature is in the same building … at the same legislative function hosted by a variety of interests,” Taylor said.
The investigation left some lawmakers shaking their heads Friday morning when they received notice from the district attorney instructing them to preserve all documents in their possession that might be relevant to the investigation.
They complained that similar dinners had been held by previous governors.