Kansas lawmakers unwittingly broke open meetings law

Kansas lawmakers appear to have unwittingly broken the state’s open meetings law during a series of dinner meetings at the governor’s mansion last January.

But no action will be taken by the Shawnee County district attorney because the dozens of unnamed lawmakers unintentionally committed only technical violations of the law.

“While we can conclude that none of the legislators attending the January 2012 dinners at Cedar Crest appear to have acted in bad faith, we must conclude that the legislators acted out of ignorance of the applicable law,” District Attorney Chad Taylor’s long-awaited report said Tuesday.

“We’re not saying ignorance is an excuse this time,” Taylor said in a Tuesday news conference in Topeka. “What we are saying is that technical violations occurred.”

The meetings involved members of specific legislative committees who met to discuss issues Republican Gov. Sam Brownback was dealing with during the last legislative session.

The Brownback administration appeared happy with the district attorney’s conclusions.

“As we maintained from the outset, the dinners at Cedar Crest did not violate” the law, said Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag. “The district attorney now has confirmed there were no substantive (open meeting) violations and that the governor and his staff clearly understood (the law) and took the appropriate precautions.”

Taylor’s investigators interviewed nearly 50 lawmakers over seven months in trying to determine if an open meetings violation occurred. The investigation was spurred after the Topeka Capital-Journal reported in January that seven meetings were held involving mostly Republicans.

Many of the lawmakers were members of committees that were set to debate the governor’s tax and school reform plans. In some instances, a majority of committee members attended the meetings.

Brownback addressed members of the committees, followed by a question-and-answer session. The report said “it appears more probable than not” that during the question-and-answer sessions the open meetings law was violated more than once.

However, the report added that the violations would have only been technical by the “slimmest margin.” It warned that if lawmakers participated in similar discussions in the future, regardless of who holds the event, they risk a “substantive violation.”

The report noted that Brownback and his staff were aware of the risks of holding the dinners. The report added that the governor warned lawmakers at the outset to be mindful of the open meetings law.

But the report pointed out that just because the governor — or any third party — addresses the majority of a governing body does not automatically trigger the open meetings law.

Open meetings advocates said they were disappointed with the district attorney’s findings.

“This decision is the kind of hollow victory those of us who fight for open government have come to expect,” said Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association. “Once again, the decision rendered has been an acknowledgement that a technical violation of the law occurred, coupled with a plea to get training and an admonition to go and sin no more.”

Prosecutors acknowledged that their efforts to determine if there was a violation of the open meetings law were impeded by lawmakers’ memories.

“Without the attendees having a specific recollection of the (question-and-answer) sessions that followed the governor’s remarks as well as the identities of the participants in the Q sessions, it is impossible for us to determine which legislators, if any, violated the tenets” of the open meetings law, the report said.

Taylor, a Democrat, recommended that all lawmakers receive detailed and specific training on the open meetings law and its application to their roles as members of the Legislature.

He also recommended that the attorney general’s office be consulted about the legality of any similar meetings in the future, especially since dinner gatherings are common with lobbying groups in Topeka.

Outgoing Kansas Speaker Mike O’Neal, a Republican, said he was pleased with the results of the probe.

“I had nothing but confidence that our legislators adhered to the guidelines laid out in (the law) while at the governor’s residence,” O’Neal said.

But some lawmakers called the investigation a waste of time and said it probably would not change the way business is done in the future.

“How many bills did we kick out of the governor’s house, again?” asked state Rep. Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican who had been critical of the investigation, although he didn’t attend any of the meetings. “What good came out of this? How did he make Kansas or Shawnee County a better place?”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.