Government & Politics

Kansas officials’ private emails about public business to be subject to disclosure

After signing several bills, Gov. Sam Brownback talks about a variety of things including Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during a news conference Wednesday.
After signing several bills, Gov. Sam Brownback talks about a variety of things including Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during a news conference Wednesday. AP

TOPEKA – Kansas officials’ emails about public business on private accounts or devices will be subject to public disclosure starting in July under a bill Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law Wednesday.

The law closes a big loophole in the Kansas Open Records Act.

That decades-old law generally requires government records to be accessible to the public, but it hasn’t specifically applied to officials’ private email accounts or communications with private cellphones.

Legislators approved the measure after months of scrutiny of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as U.S. secretary of state.

The issue also arose in Kansas following disclosures about Brownback and his budget director’s use of private communications.

The new law won’t apply to officials’ communications about personal matters, and government agencies will still be able to cite any of dozens of exceptions to deny access to some material, such as personnel records.

But Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, said the law is “a huge step forward.”

“It’s a great day for open government in Kansas,” Anstaett said. “I think we’ve shown that no matter where you do public business, the public has a right to hear about it and a right to read about it.”

The new law contains other trade-offs. One provision backed by law enforcement groups declares that footage from officers’ body cameras is an investigation record, so that its disclosure will be restricted. Also, it continues for five more years 29 exceptions to the records act’s general requirement for disclosure of documents.

The private-email loophole grabbed legislators’ attention in January 2015 after The Wichita Eagle reported that Budget Director Shawn Sullivan had used a private email account to give two well-connected lobbyists a preview of the Republican governor’s budget proposals before they were formally presented to the GOP-dominated Legislature. Brownback later acknowledged using a private cellphone for years for most of his communications.

“The governor’s office followed the law that was in place when Governor Brownback came into office, and now our office will continue to follow the new law he signed today,” spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said in an emailed statement.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, said the measure brings the Open Records Act “into the 21st century.” And Anstaett said the measure was written so that, “If a new technology comes along next year, it will be covered.”

Schmidt faced some criticism after issuing a legal opinion in 2015 saying the records law did not apply to officials’ emails on private accounts or devices, but he backed the changes. The final version of the bill passed both chambers unanimously.

“Elected and appointed officials should not be using their private email accounts to conduct public business,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat who had pursued his own proposal last year.