Government & Politics

Kobach can be investigated by citizen grand jury, Kansas Court of Appeals rules

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach in Douglas County.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach in Douglas County. File photo

The Kansas Court of Appeals ruled Friday that a citizen grand jury can proceed with an investigation of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach in Douglas County.

Steven Davis, a Democratic candidate for the Kansas House, first filed a petition in 2016 to investigate Kobach on the allegation that he had intentionally failed to register voters who had tried to register through the state’s online registration system.

The Douglas County District Court rejected the petition, finding a lack of sufficient evidence to support the allegations.

In 2017, the Kansas Legislature amended the law to enable people to appeal when the petition for a grand jury is rejected, Davis said.

He submitted a new petition in August 2017, which was again rejected by the district court.

The Court of Appeals ruled Friday that the lower court had erred when it ruled that Davis needed to provide “specific allegations of a crime, when only general allegations are required by the statute.”

The Court of Appeals ordered the Douglas County District Court to summon a grand jury under the law.

Davis’ petition will enable a grand jury to investigate whether Kobach or his subordinates had destroyed, obstructed or failed to process online voter registration applications and whether Kobach’s office had prevented qualified voters from casting their ballots.

Davis, 29, said he is confident that there is enough evidence to justify the investigation.

“The question of whether or not there’s enough evidence for an indictment, that’s for the grand jury,” said Davis, who is running in the Democratic primary for Lawrence’s 45th House District.

Kansas is one of six states that allow citizens to request grand juries through petitions. The law is meant to allow for an investigation when there is public support for one despite an unwillingness of a prosecutor to pursue one.

Under the law, a petition requires 100 voters plus 2 percent of the number of people who voted in the county in the last gubernatorial election.

In Douglas County, that is 860 signatures based on the 2014 election. Davis collected 910.

Kobach, who has previously voiced support for the citizen grand jury law, released a statement late Friday criticizing Davis for presenting no evidence to support his claims of criminal wrongdoing.

"His allegations are patently false. It is unfortunate that a citizen's privilege of being able to petition for a review of government action is being used for political gain in Mr. Davis's upcoming election at the taxpayer's expense," Kobach said in the statement.

Bryan Caskey, the state's director of elections, said in an accompanying statement that Davis' allegations concern a brief period in 2016 when online registration system was malfunctioning.

"The election officials at the county and state level worked quickly to correct the malfunction and to allow the affected voters to cast their votes," Caskey said.

The Court of Appeals noted that lawmakers tweaked the law in 2013 to make it easier to call a citizen grand jury. It was a change that was primarily supported by conservative Republicans at the time.

“In issuing our decision today, we are mindful that the mere calling of a grand jury directed at the actions of a public official or a private individual without probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and without the guiding hand of a professional prosecutor can have serious personal and professional consequences,” the ruling said.

“But the Kansas Legislature has determined that it wants to provide for citizen-initiated grand juries and it wants them to have broad powers to investigate possible criminal activity. The wisdom of this law is not a concern of our court.”

High profile citizen-led grand juries have a checkered history in Kansas.

In 2007, a group of Johnson County citizens sought to convene a grand jury to investigate Planned Parenthood, a provider of women's reproductive medical services that sometimes includes abortion.

Then-Johnson County District Attorney Phill Kline advised the grand jury in ways that were later determined by the Kansas Supreme Court to be misleading.

In January 2008, Wyandotte County political gadfly T.J. Reardon filed a petition to summon a grand jury investigation into the Board of Public Utilities and allegations of misappropriation of funds and awarding no-bid contracts.

The grand jury's work resulted in criminal charges against Kansas City, Kansas, attorney Rod Turner and former BPU chief administrative officer Marc Conklin for allegedly swindling the utility to the tune of $400,000 through payments of phony legal bills.

The Kansas Supreme Court dismissed the indictment against Turner in 2014, citing prejudicial grand jury testimony by a Kansas Bureau of Investigation special agent. Supreme Court justices ruled the KBI agent made suggestive remarks about how the BPU criminal case could result in clues about an unrelated and unsolved 1987 political assassination of Wyandotte County Democratic Party chief Chuck Thompson.

Conklin committed suicide in 2009.

In 2012, a citizen-led grand jury convened to consider whether obscenity laws were violated by a semi-nude statue in the Overland Park Arboretum. The grand jury took less than a day to decide no indictment was merited.