Inquiry into Brownback meetings to go on

Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor’s investigation into Gov. Sam Brownback’s private meetings with Republican legislators will likely continue into next month, Taylor’s spokesman said Thursday.

Lee McGowan, Taylor’s chief of staff, said Taylor’s staff is still interviewing legislators who attended seven meetings in January at Cedar Crest, the governor’s official residence. Brownback invited more than 90 of the state’s 165 legislators to the dinner gatherings, and some who attended said he made brief remarks about legislative issues and took a few questions.

Many participating legislators viewed the events as social gatherings, not business meetings. Brownback’s invitations grouped lawmakers by committees. All but one of the legislators invited were Republicans. The lone Democratic lawmaker who received an invitation has said she assumed it was a mistake and didn’t go.

Taylor, a Democrat, launched the investigation in February, after receiving a complaint from an attorney representing the Topeka Capital-Journal. Taylor assigned two staff members to the investigation, and the Kansas Attorney General’s Office confirmed Thursday that it is providing legal representation to legislators who request it.

McGowan said Taylor’s office expects interviews with legislators to last at least another week before the two staffers begin compiling a report. Interviews have been conducted in the late afternoon and evening, after lawmakers finish their business for the day.

“I don’t think anybody thought it was going to be a quick process because of the number of people involved and their schedules,” McGowan said.

The Kansas Open Meetings Act generally prohibits a majority of a legislative body from discussing government business without giving the public notice or access to the meetings.

Taylor has said the act does not apply to Brownback as an individual, and that the alleged violations are civil, not criminal, matters. Officials found to have broken the law can be fined up to $500 per incident, though such a penalty is unusual. Typically, a case leads to an order or agreement spelling out what steps the government body will take to avoid future violations.

Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said, “We’re still confident that no open meetings violations occurred.”

When he announced his investigation, Taylor said he was likely to interview Brownback, but McGowan said that hasn’t occurred yet.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, who attended three meetings, said his interview earlier this month lasted 30 to 45 minutes. Masterson said he repeatedly told Taylor’s investigators that he witnessed no violations of the meetings law and said they “played good cop-bad cop on me.”

Masterson said a member of Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s staff also was present but only observed. Jeff Wagaman, a spokesman for Schmidt, a Republican, said Assistant Attorney General Mike Smith is representing lawmakers.

“At the request of legislative leadership, the attorney general’s office is making legal counsel available to individual legislators who request it during their interviews,” Wagaman said in an e-mail.

Sen. Ruth Teichman, R-Stafford, described her interview as routine, saying it lasted less than 30 minutes. She attended two of the Cedar Crest gatherings and said Taylor’s staffers questioned her about who also attended and what people said.

Rep. Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park, who attended two of the events, said he has an interview scheduled early next week. He said the dinners occurred before Brownback released his plan to cut income taxes or his proposed budget.

“I can’t remember anything specifically being discussed,” he said. “There was just nothing to get specific about.”