TOPEKA | Republican legislators are growing defensive over ongoing questions about whether private gatherings they had with Republican Gov. Sam Brownback at his official residence violated Kansas' Open Meetings Act.
Seven dinners were held last month at Cedar Crest, the governor's residence in Topeka. Brownback and many of the attending lawmakers said the events were purely social, not business meetings worthy of the investigation recently launched by Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor.
The legislators said the events weren't different from past gatherings with Democratic governors, and a few said the dinners weren't especially memorable. Several told The Associated Press, which interviewed three dozen of the 91 lawmakers invited to the dinners, that Brownback made remarks touching on legislative issues and took a few questions. But they insisted no lines were crossed.
"I did nothing different from the year before and the year before that and the year before that," said Sen. Rob Olson, an Olathe Republican, who attended a Jan. 18 gathering with fellow Senate Commerce Committee members.
However, the past two governors invited lawmakers from both parties based on the alphabetical order of their names, while each of Brownback's January dinners included members of specific legislative committees and all but one of those invited were Republican.
The Open Meetings Act prohibits a voting majority of a governmental body, such as a legislative committee, from discussing government business without giving the public notice or access to the meetings.
Taylor, a Democrat, launched an investigation after The Topeka Capital-Journal complained that majorities of legislative committee were attending but the public was barred from the dinners.
Some Republicans are accusing Taylor of grandstanding, noting that he sent a letter this month to Brownback and every legislator directing them to preserve records and electronic files that could be used as evidence. House Speaker Mike Hutchison said Taylor should have worked through legislative leaders.
Amanda Adkins, chairwoman of the Kansas Republican Party, dismissed Taylor's investigation as "a classic political maneuver." And several GOP lawmakers mocked the idea that they had extensive files to preserve from the dinners.
"I have a Cedar Crest napkin," said Rep. Willie Prescott, an Osage City Republican who briefly attended a Jan. 23 event for members of the House and Senate agriculture committees. "I would be more than happy to turn over the napkin."
Taylor has said his only focus is on whether the law was violated.
Brownback's administration has said the governor had staffers or legislators keep tabs on the dinner conversations to watch for potential problems. For example, during a Jan. 9 dinner that included Republicans on the House and Senate committees dealing with pensions, Senate President Steve Morris stepped in to warn about violating the law when someone asked a question, said Sen. Ruth Teichman, who was at the meeting.
During a Jan. 18 meeting for members of the Senate commerce and tax committees, the governor gave a presentation about his plan to overhaul the income tax system, and "various people asked questions and made comments," said Sen. Dick Kelsey, a Goddard Republican. Sen. Pat Apple, a Louisburg Republican who also attended the dinner, said Brownback's remarks were "rather generic."
The AP was allowed to attend a dinner Feb. 6, after the Topeka Journal lodged its complaint. The governor said it was a typical dinner, though it was attended by two dozen lawmakers representing both parties and didn't appear to be targeting specific committees. In remarks that evening, Brownback said he didn't want legislators violating the meetings law and asked two of them to warn their colleagues if discussions were in danger of doing so.
Violations of the law would be civil matters, not criminal, and the law doesn't apply to Brownback as an individual. Officials found to have knowingly broken the law can be fined up to $500 per incident, though the usual outcome is an agreement or order spelling out how officials will avoid future problems.
Former Lt. Gov. Troy Findley, who served as chief of staff to former Democratic Govs. Mark Parkinson and Kathleen Sebelius, said those governors invited legislators in groups of four or six and went through House and Senate rosters alphabetically, letting lawmakers swap with each other if they had conflicts. Parkinson and Sebelius also invited all Democrats to the governor's residence after lawmakers' annual session ended.
"I don't ever recall us inviting committees," he said.
Still, some Republicans don't see Brownback's meetings as anything atypical. They also note that the residence doesn't have a large formal dining room, so lawmakers sat in the main living room and a sun room with trays of food on their laps, making small talk with each other before the governor briefly spoke to them.
"Honestly, I didn't think much about it," said Rep. Ron Worley, a Lenexa Republican who attended the first meeting Jan. 9.
But Worley and other invited Republican legislators are having to think about the dinners as Taylor continues his investigation, and they're growing irritated because they see the continued questions as a distraction.