TOPEKA, Kan. — A Kansas district attorney said Friday that he's likely to interview Gov. Sam Brownback as a witness during an investigation into the legality of private meetings with legislators at the governor's official residence, but the state's most powerful lawmaker criticized the prosecutor's tactics.
House Speaker Mike O'Neal, a Hutchinson Republican, said he's advising fellow legislators not to respond immediately to a letter from Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor, a Democrat. The letter, delivered to most lawmakers Friday, directed them to maintain records and electronic files that could be potential evidence.
O'Neal, an attorney, said he's hoping legislators will draft a collective response to Taylor's letter. In an interview with The Associated Press, he said didn't think it was professional for the district attorney to send a letter to all 40 senators and 125 House members, even those not involved in the meetings.
Taylor said he's hoping to gather information without having to subpoena witnesses and documents and that he sent the letter to all legislators because he didn't know exactly who was involved in the meetings. There were seven gatherings in January for Republicans on 13 committees at Cedar Crest, the governor's residence.
Brownback said Friday that he's confident the law wasn't violated. He has private gatherings with legislators scheduled Monday and Tuesday, though with bipartisan groups not tied to specific committees.
O'Neal stressed that he's not suggesting that legislators will resist Taylor's attempts to gather information about whether the meetings were legal. Instead, O'Neal said, he expects legislative leaders to consult next week with their top staff attorney on a response.
The House speaker – whose authority over his chamber is undivided, while power in the Senate is shared – said Taylor should have worked through legislative leaders to get information and talk to individual lawmakers, instead of sending an "unreasonably overbroad" letter to all of them. Each of Taylor's letters asked the lawmaker to respond to his office by email by Tuesday.
"He could follow the chain of command. He doesn't need to be writing members who don't possibly have any connection with this investigation," O'Neal said. "Our advice to our members is to not respond to the district attorney's letters."
Taylor also sent letters to Brownback's office, his secretary of administration, and the information technology director for the executive branch. He spoke to reporters about the investigation before O'Neal made his comments and didn't respond Friday evening to telephone messages seeking a response.
Taylor agreed with Brownback's aides about several key issues. He said Brownback himself, as an individual, isn't covered by the Kansas Open Meetings Act. He also said the legality of the meetings would depend upon what legislators discussed and how they interacted with Brownback and each other and would not violate the law simply because majorities of individual committees had gathered.
Brownback's office has said both that the meetings were social gatherings and that legislators were admonished not to discuss their official business.
Taylor said he hopes to gather information without having to issue subpoenas and his office is likely to interview dozens of officials, including Brownback.
"He is a witness in this matter," Taylor said, adding, "I would say it's more likely that not" that he'll see to interview the governor.
Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said his office would evaluate a request for an interview, once it's formally made.
Earlier, during a news conference, the governor said: "We will fully cooperate with any investigation, and I am completely confident that they will show no wrongdoing."
The Open Meetings Act generally prohibits a voting majority of a legislative body from discussing government business without giving the public notice or access to the meetings. Alleged violations are a civil matter, not a criminal one. A person found to have broken the law is subject to fines of up to $500 per incident.
The law allows the state's attorney general or a county prosecutor to subpoena witnesses and documents and compel witnesses to answer questions under oath.
But O'Neal noted that the Kansas Constitution says that no legislator shall be "subject to the service of any civil process" while lawmakers are in session.
"We're not looking for a big fight with the DA's office, but he needs to have an understanding of what his limitations are," O'Neal said.
The Legislature's top Democrats acknowledged governors have routinely invited lawmakers to the official residence in the past but said the January meetings were improper because invitations went to a majority of members of specific committees.
Several Republican legislators who attended meetings said they struck them as social gatherings. They described eating dinner and hearing greetings and remarks from the governor, some repeating comments he'd made in previous speeches, other expressing hope lawmakers would have a good session.
Kansas governor: https://governor.ks.gov/
Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org
Shawnee County, Kan., district attorney: http://www.snco.us/da/