TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) _ Private dinner gatherings that Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback hosted for dozens of legislators at his official residence didn’t substantially violate the state’s opening meetings law even though they touched upon his legislative agenda, a state prosecutor said Tuesday.
Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor issued his findings after a nearly seven-month investigation into seven meetings in January for members of 13 legislative committees. Brownback invited more than 90 lawmakers, almost all of them fellow Republicans.
Taylor, a Democrat, said his investigation found no evidence to suggest any substantial violations of the Kansas Open Meetings Act, which generally prohibits a majority of legislative bodies from discussing government business without public notice or access to the meetings. He said his investigation found that in some instances the legislators touched on issues before them at Cedar Crest gatherings, but that generally they did not intend to violate the act.
Many of the legislators who were invited to the dinners described them as social gatherings heavy on small talk, and Brownback and his aides repeatedly said they were comfortable that no laws were violated. However, the governor also acknowledged that he called the meetings to discuss his legislative agenda and took some questions.
Governors have had regular social gatherings for lawmakers at Cedar Crest for decades, but Brownback’s events were seen as unusual because he grouped legislators by committee. Taylor had said from the outset of his investigation that, as an individual, Brownback couldn’t violate the open meetings law and that legislators would face any potential sanctions.
Also, violations of the Open Meetings Act are civil, not criminal, matters. Officials who knowingly break the law can be fined up to $500 per incident, but typically, a case leads to an order or agreement spelling out what steps officials will take to avoid future violations.
Taylor launched his investigation after receiving a complaint in late January from an attorney for The Topeka Capital-Journal, which wrote the first news reports about the gatherings. The district attorney initially said he could have the investigation wrapped up by mid-February.
Many Republican legislators had accused Taylor of launching a political investigation, and GOP leaders initially were put off by his tactics. For example, early on, he sent a letter to all legislators, demanding that they preserve records and electronic files as potential evidence.
The Open Meetings Act allows the state’s attorney general or a county prosecutor to subpoena witnesses and documents and compel witnesses to answer questions under oath. But some legislators noted that the Kansas Constitution gives them immunity from having to answer subpoenas while they are in session, and Taylor’s office didn’t wrap up interviews with lawmakers until June.