Yael T. Abouhalkah

Yael T. Abouhalkah: Gov. Sam Brownback administration’s deception on crucial email incident

Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration tried to mislead the public about a crucial exchange of email in late December 2014.
Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration tried to mislead the public about a crucial exchange of email in late December 2014. The Associated Press

New evidence reveals just how far the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback is willing to go in deceiving the public about how it operates.

Summed up: The administration provided misleading information about an important exchange of email in late 2014. Then, the administration did not provide a response to a media request for clarification about the incident for eight months. That was inexcusable.

Finally, the ultimate response was questionable, to boot.

The Wichita Eagle reported over the weekend that Budget Director Shawn Sullivan had access to his state email account back in December. And yet, he used a private email account to send a crucial communication to lobbyists and others about Brownback’s proposed budget and tax plans for the upcoming 2015 legislative session.

The Eagle wrote about the private email in late January.

Sullivan’s excuse at the time — “why it was done on personal email was because it was done while I was at home on Christmas” — was demolished in The Eagle’s weekend story.

As the paper reported, Sullivan was sending messages on his state email account the very same day he used his private email account, too, to send out the controversial budget information.

As plenty of people thought at the time, the Brownback administration was intent on communicating with other public officials about public business through private email. This would have been done to avoid the kind of scrutiny that could have resulted if they had used a state email account that’s accessible through Freedom of Information requests from the media and public.

Confronted last week with the new information that Sullivan indeed had had access to his state email account, Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley initially responded for Sullivan.

She contended that the emails that Sullivan had sent from his home on his state email account during the Christmas period — detailed in The Eagle’s story — were “short messages.” But the information on the budget sent to lobbyists and others “included Excel spreadsheets,” Hawley said, and “he was not able to send these more complex messages from his cellphone.”

Notice: This Hawley explanation is not at all what Sullivan said way back in December. Instead, he was content to mislead the public into thinking that he had access only to private email, not his state email account.

But when The Eagle caught that misleading statement, the Brownback administration delivered another excuse for the use of the private email.

Of course, if that account had been provided at the time, The Eagle and others could have further pursued the issue to see whether Sullivan had followed the state’s open records law in using his private email account that way. But that opportunity was lost with the lack of full accounting by Sullivan — followed by the eight-month delay in the Brownback administration providing more information to The Eagle.

Here’s where the story takes a twist.

When The Eagle published its story on Saturday, I tweeted it and said the Brownback administration was involved in lying to and misleading the public.

Sullivan responded via Twitter, setting up an exchange among several people on why he had done what he had done.

The budget director repeated the new, Hawley-provided explanation in his first response: “Was at home when lengthy email with excel spreadsheet sent that couldn’t send from work email on phone”

Another person on Twitter interjected: “tired of politicians not able to figure out email, we all know personal email is to hide info from public”

Sullivan responded: “Point is why would I use yahoo email to hide it from public when it was exempt under KORA (Kansas Open Records Act) if sent from wk email”

By this, Sullivan was claiming that a policy draft of the budget — even if sent on work email — would not have been open to later public scrutiny.

When Eagle reporter Bryan Lowry joined the Twitter exchange, he noted, “Got an email from (Sullivan). Argues that had he messaged Kensinger on budget by state account it would’ve been exempt from KORA”

Sullivan said he was merely pointing something out, not arguing.

Lowry — accurately — responded: “interpretation of what exempt depends on a lawyer’s judgment so I think “argues” is fair.”

Indeed, if all this had been known months ago, the media could have pressed whether Sullivan’s use of private email really did conform to the open records act.

Ultimately, Sullivan on Twitter summed up his response this way: “Lengthy email, excel attachments, no access to web portal. Now I do bring work laptop home to avoid a repeat.”

Well, that’s progress. But it’s only after a sad incident of obfuscation that does not need to be repeated in the Brownback administration.