Olathe lawmaker’s job as a government strategist raises ethics questions

Kansas state Rep. Erin Davis’ LinkedIn profile identifies her as representative first, and Cerner employee second.
Kansas state Rep. Erin Davis’ LinkedIn profile identifies her as representative first, and Cerner employee second.

Erin Davis’ profile on the business social network LinkedIn notes that she works as a senior government strategist for North Kansas City-based Cerner Corporation. And above that, it lists another title that makes her name recognizable to Olathe residents: She’s state representative for Kansas’ 15th District.

Her district is just a 20-minute drive down Interstate 435 from the futuristic Cerner Continuous Campus in Kansas City, Kan., at Village West. Does that mean Davis has an automatic conflict of interest in Topeka?

Davis’ situation is far from unique, of course, because Kansas legislators are effectively moonlighters. Most hold down outside jobs during the roughly eight months of the year that they are out of session.

Kansas is among the 14 states with the smallest legislative staffs and lowest pay, according to the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures — though plenty of us wouldn’t turn up our noses at $88.66 per day plus a $140 per diem, even for just one-third of the year. And Kansas lawmakers can look forward to participating in the state’s KPERS pension system, which rewards them generously for years after their service ends.

What’s different here is the opaque nature of Davis’ role at Cerner. When asked what her job there entails, a spokesperson would only reiterate verbatim what she’d already told a Star reporter: “Our team of government strategists represents the company and identifies business opportunities in state and local governments across the country.”

Joining Davis on that Cerner team is Brian Baker, who is also a government strategist, though “lead,” not “senior.”

And he’s the company’s lone lobbyist registered with the Kansas Secretary of State’s office for 2018.

So we have two Cerner employees on the same corporate team with strikingly similar job titles, one making law in the House, the other lobbying lawmakers. How could eyebrows not be raised?

John Vratil, a lawyer and former state senator, noted that conflicts of interest can be complex and difficult to identify. “It’s a lot more than just having two similar interests,” he said.

In a statement, Davis denied an ethical issue: “As with all legislators who have employers outside of the Legislature, the legislative rules allow for a member to abstain from a vote that could present a conflict.” Her assignment covers the northeastern U.S. “Kansas is not part of my territory.”

“Our founders never intended for our Legislature to be comprised of career politicians,” she said. And she’s right that the citizen legislature model has particular merits, especially in a state as rural as Kansas. After all, a senator who harvests sorghum in the fall is sure to offer insight into farm policy that would elude a lawmaker hunkered behind a government desk for decades.

If we take Davis at her word about abstaining where Cerner could stand to gain from her putting a thumb on the scale, the onus would still be on her fellow legislators to keep alert for any remote whiff of impropriety. Cerner already does business with the Kansas government, currently managing the state employee wellness program.

“I suppose all we can do is wait to see what she does,” said Vratil.

We would prefer not to suffer through the suspense. Davis hasn’t answered directly whether she plans to serve when the session starts back up in January, or if she’s simply maximizing her state benefits while running out the clock. And Cerner has declined the opportunity to clarify its government strategist team’s agenda.

The Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission should flex its oversight muscle by initiating an investigation now. Kansans deserve direct answers. Public trust is at stake.