Kansas secretary of state weary of fact-averse, out-of-staters who insult election system

Secretary of State Scott Schwab believes election security requires vigilance due to evolution of cyber threats, but the voice of Kansas’ top election official revealed a touch of exasperation when conversation pivoted to uninformed people dedicated to shaking public confidence in voting systems.

Schwab said Kansas had conducted 300 post-election audits without uncovering a single failure. Still, he said, people were pushing theories of voter misconduct that fell short when it came to leaping from suspicion to fact.

“Folks from out of state have come in and insulted the Kansas election system,” Schwab said on the Kansas Reflector podcast. “And, they haven’t read our laws. They’ve never been here on Election Day. They’d never watched the tabulation process. They’ve never been a poll worker.”

He also recalled a conversation with a man who claimed to be in possession of a “formula” proving election fraud in Kansas, which could have been of interest to the attorney general.

“I said, ‘Thank you, I needed evidence to go to Derek Schmidt with. Show it to me,’ ” Schwab said. “He goes: ‘I don’t have it right here.’ ”

The Kansas Legislature adopted a collection of new election policies during the 2022 session, and Schwab said he had no objection to the Legislature’s efforts to make certain every legal vote was counted.

In the background, however, was a national movement stoked by election skeptics who declared — without evidence — the United States was awash in fraud.

“I believe our computer systems are safe in our office, but that doesn’t mean I just can walk away and move on to the next thing,” Schwab said. “We constantly have to monitor and work with Homeland Security in the the Kansas National Guard to make sure our systems are secure. But it goes beyond that. It is just making sure that people have confidence in the election.”

Eager for second term

Schwab, first elected secretary of state in 2018, is seeking a second term in the statewide office. He has a Republican opponent in the Aug. 2 primary — Scott Brown, a former member of the Johnson County Commission. On the Democratic Party’s ledger, Jeanna Repass is the lone official candidate.

The secretary of state in Kansas serves as the central authority on elections and plays a role in assisting the 105 counties in voting operations. The office of secretary of state also maintains records of Kansas businesses.

Schwab said most of the day-to-day work in the office had to do with business filings. Four years ago, he campaigned on a pledge to create a one-stop online method for people to create business entities. The computer system in the secretary of state’s office dedicated to the business registration proved inadequate, he said. Transition to a new system won’t be finished until 2023.

“We found out we had couldn’t get done in four years,” Schwab said. “We want to make sure we complete that campaign promise.”

Under the state’s antiquated IT system, investors interested in opening a Hays restaurant would file an LLC form with the secretary of state. But companies seeking a restaurant permit had to go through the Kansas Department of Agriculture. The Kansas Department of Revenue had permits for the sale of liquor and wine. If there were employee issues, the Kansas Department of Labor would could get involved.

Otherwise, Schwab said his office would work in a second term to update Kansas statute books to weed out outdated language. He said some laws on the books were a century old and conflicted with more recent law.

Redistricting controversy

The Kansas Supreme Court last week affirmed constitutionality of the Legislature’s redistricting maps for the 125 House and 40 Senate seats. The House is up for election in 2022, while the Senate won’t be on the ballot until 2024.

In addition, the state Supreme Court rejected a lower court judge’s decision the redrawn congressional map violated the Kansas Constitution. The substantive legal question centered on the GOP-controlled Legislature’s vote to split Democrat-rich Wyandotte County between two districts in an effort to make it easier for a Republican to carry the 3rd District served by Democratic U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids. The Legislature also moved Lawrence from the 2nd District to the rural, expansive 1st District.

“We’re glad as election officials that it’s finally settled, because we gotta get that election calendar out to our clerks,” said Schwab, who ran unsuccessful for Congress in 2006.

The filing deadline for statewide offices, including secretary of state and U.S. Senate, remained June 1. The deadline for the four U.S. House districts, the Legislature and the state Board of Education was pushed back to June 10 due to the legal scramble.

Constitutional amendments

Schwab said there was merit to each of three proposed amendments to the Kansas Constitution appearing on statewide ballots in 2022. Each constitutional reform was endorsed by two-thirds majorities of the Legislature, and each in one way or another defined political authority in Kansas.

In the Aug. 2 primary, registered voters in Kansas have an opportunity to decide whether to let stand a decision by the state Supreme Court that identified a right to abortion in the state constitution’s Bill of Rights. The section emphasized by the justices: “All men are possessed of equal and inalienable natural rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Under the state court’s decision, abortion would remain legal in Kansas even if the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Roe v. Wade case establishing a national right to abortion.

Schwab, who has opposed abortion while serving in the Kansas House member and as secretary of state, said the opinion placed in jeopardy existing or future Kansas law restraining abortion.

“It could get to the point where really … whoever does a pedicure is more regulated than an abortion doctor, which is terrifying. And it just depends on how the pro-abortionists how far they want to take it,” Schwab said.

The Nov. 8 general election ballot in Kansas affords voter the chance to decide whether the constitution ought to require county sheriffs to be elected. Schwab said popular election was a better method of choosing a sheriff than appointment by county officials.

In addition, this fall’s ballot includes an amendment to enable the Legislature to reject or suspend administrative rules or regulations crafted by state agencies.

Schwab said he recalled what it was like to be a state legislator frustrated with regulatory actions of Democratic administrations.

“I served under Kathleen Sebelius for six years and then Mark Parkinson for two,” he said. “Some of these rules and regs like this is a policy discussion for the Legislature.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Kansas senator demands special parental warnings on television shows exploring gender issues

TOPEKA — U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall wants a television monitoring board to expand a ratings system to warn parents about content in youth programs relating to people with a desire to be another gender.

The Kansas Republican joined four U.S. Senate colleagues on a letter urging the TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board to push back against “left-wing sexual politics” embodied in Walt Disney Co.’s opposition to the Florida “don’t say gay” law prohibiting educators from delving into gender issues with children in kindergarten through third grade.

Marshall and U.S. Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Mike Braun of Indiana, Steve Daines of Montana and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota recommended the board update guidelines to feature ratings on content tied to gender dysphoria so parents or guardians could more easily block kids from viewing LGBTQ content.

In the past, the television board has focused on rating programs in terms of obscene, violent or sexual material.

“To the detriment of children, gender dysphoria has become sensationalized in the popular media and television with radical activists and entertainment companies. This radical and sexual sensation not only harms children, but also destabilizes and damages parental rights,” the senators’ letter said.

The American Psychological Association reported some people who are transgender experience gender dysphoria, a form of psychological distress about the difference between an individual’s gender assignment at birth and an individual’s gender identity. The condition must be associated with clinically significant social, occupational or other impairment to meet criteria for the diagnosis.

Marshall’s letter continued: “The motivations of hyper-sexualized entertainment producers striving to push this content on young audiences are suspect at best and predatory at worst.”

The letter signed by Marshall also said parents across the United States should outraged that educators wade into sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms.

In 1997, most broadcast and cable networks implemented the board’s television content rating system in response to public concern about explicit sexual content, graphic violence and profanity on screen.

The Kansas Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly tangled over a bill last month that would have banned transgender girls or women from participating in school or college sports programs in Kansas.

The Democratic governor vetoed the bill, but the House failed to gain the two-thirds majority necessary to override her decision. The Senate had the votes for an override.

GOP legislators in the House and Senate said transgender athletes would have an unfair advantage if involved in sports competitions for girls or women. Rep. Barbara Wasinger, a Hays Republican, said identifying as transgender was evidence of a mental health problem among “people that are confused.”

Opponents of the bill said the prohibition was part of a political campaign to shame people and undermine transgender Kansans’ identities.

“If you disapprove of who I am or who a young trans person is, take that up with our creator,” said Rep. Brandon Woodard, a Lenexa Democrat and one of four LGBTQ legislators in Kansas.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Former Sen. Kassebaum looks in mirror, sees GOP moderates like herself no longer viable in Kansas

Former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum shattered a glass ceiling to become the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate who didn’t follow in footsteps of a male spouse.

The Kansas Republican went from Maize school board member to U.S. senator by winning the 1978 general election with 53% of ballots cast. She easily prevailed in two re-election campaigns with more than 73% of the vote before retiring from the Senate in 1997.

“I know full well I could not be re-elected today,” said Kassebaum, who spoke Wednesday at the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. “It’s not that I’ve changed so much.”

Kassebaum’s political lineage included her father, Alf Landon, who was a Kansas governor and the Republican Party’s nominee for president in 1936, and a son, Bill, who served as a Republican in the Kansas Legislature.

She was the choice of Kansas voters four decades ago while expressing support for abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment and ending apartheid in South Africa. She worked in the Senate to establish Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday. She voted for the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, including an override of President Ronald Reagan’s veto. She endorsed a ban on assault weapons and the imposition of a waiting period for purchase of a handgun.

She has spoken against GOP President Donald Trump and endorsed Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Barbara Bollier.

Former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said Kassebaum’s instincts about Kansas politics were sound. Kassebaum had a front-row seat as state Rep. Bill Kassebaum lost the 2004 GOP primary for re-election to the Kansas House after working with Democrats on school finance.

“She knows of what she speaks,” Sebelius said. “It’s hard to tell if she would be challenged by a conservative and whether or not the party has become that divided.”

School board to Senate

Before the Senate, Kassebaum’s only personal experience in elective office was time served on the Maize School Board. She also worked one year in Washington, D.C., as a caseworker for U.S. Sen. James Pearson, a Kansas Republican. The decision to run for Pearson’s open seat followed a recruiting effort by people who wanted a woman to represent Kansas in the U.S. Senate, she said. Landon, her father, was skeptical of her candidacy. Her mother, Theo, had other ideas.

“It was a big leap,” Kassebaum said. “I talked to the family about it, who all sort of rolled their eyes. My father did not want me to run. I think he thought I would lose. My mother, who cared not very much about politics, said, ‘Yes, I think you should.'”

She said U.S. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas quietly assisted her campaign by speaking to Kansas Republicans about the type of senator that Kassebaum was capable of being.

She prevailed in a nine-person GOP primary with 30.5% of the vote. She was convinced the crowded field gave her an edge. Other Republicans in that race polled from 1.1% to 24.6%. She went on to defeat 53% to 42% former U.S. Rep. Bill Roy, a Democrat who previously lost a Senate campaign to Dole.

“People were simply surprised to see a little woman running around, going door to door in every town I went to,” Kassebaum said. “People wondered. Will she stand up and be counted?”

Kassebaum chose not to seek a fourth term in 1996 and married former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, who was known in the Senate for brokering compromises and advocating civility. In 2001, President George W. Bush nominated Baker to be U.S. ambassador to Japan. Kassebaum and Baker lived there for four years. He passed away in 2014.

Kassebaum resides at a family ranch near Burdick, northwest of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve that she helped establish.

Dole’s sense of humor

Kassebaum said Dole had the mental toughness to persevere when others would have quit. He was severely wounded in combat in Italy during World War II. She considered Dole an “exceptional leader,” who could let his understudy know what he thought with the glance of a “steely eye.”

“He always had a sense of humor, even when he might strongly disagree. That’s something he carried forward with his dialogue with other senators,” Kassebaum said.

Bob Blaemire, who published a biography of his former boss U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana, moderated the conversation with Kassebaum at the Dole Institute in Lawrence. Dole was the GOP’s 1996 nominee for president in the race won by President Bill Clinton. Dole’s campaign for president in 1980 didn’t even survive the primary.

Blaemire recalled Dole’s witty remark after getting only 600 votes in New Hampshire. Dole was quoted as saying that he “slept like a baby” after the votes were counted because “every two hours I woke up and cried.”

Kassebaum remembered joining Dole at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson for two hours of interaction with voters. The backdrop included a hay stack. Long lines snaked around their booth. After it was over, one of her sons asked if she knew why the lines were so big.

“He said, ‘Because the championship pumpkin booth was right next to yours.’ Everybody wanted to see who had the champion pumpkin.”

Heavy partisanship

Kassebaum said she appreciated politicians who understood the value of bipartisanship to a healthy democracy. She emphasized the point by referring to President Abraham Lincoln’s comment about tension of a nation split by slavery, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

“Today, if you ask who I would admire, it would be someone who was trying to reach across the aisle, both Republican or Democrat, and certainly Bob Dole was one who knew how important it was,” Kassebaum said. “He has said, I have heard him say, you cannot achieve significant legislation that will last without a compromise.”

“I think today we have forgotten. It doesn’t mean you give up something. It means you work together to get something even better and stronger,” she said.

She worked as a senator with U.S. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa on controversial bipartisan legislation — it didn’t pass — that would have imposed a one-year federal budget freeze in response to Reagan’s deficits.

“It was known as the KGB Act. That’s Kassebaum, Grassley and Biden,” she said. “I haven’t sent a note to President Biden to remind him of that piece of legislation.”

Kassebaum also collaborated with U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts on a bipartisan proposal known as the Kennedy-Kassebaum Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. It included coverage of pre-existing conditions and opportunity to transfer health coverage from state to state. It was a major piece of legislation, but not as pivotal as the Affordable Care Act signed into law by President Barack Obama.

“I had left the Senate by the time we got to the ACA, the major big health care bill, which became so controversial. I talked in favor of it,” said Kassebaum, who supports expansion of Medicaid eligibility in Kansas under the ACA. “I think it’s one of the most important issues for us to address as well here in Kansas.”

Lost opportunities

Kassebaum said she was concerned with decline of traditional news sources and the public’s reliance on organizations providing echo chambers for a listener’s or reader’s ideology. She regretted financial challenges faced by much of the newspaper industry. She’s not a fan of Zoom or Facebook.

“I don’t do email either,” she said. “I get all these calls about someone wanting to know how I would vote on this or that. I say, ‘Thank you, I appreciate your call,’ and hang up.”

She prefers in-person conversations and debates, but the nation’s strident politics made it increasingly difficult to conduct meaningful exchanges. Too many Republicans and Democrats take a black-and-white approach that doesn’t leave room for nuanced reality, she said.

It was “hard to believe” only three Republicans supported confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court, Kassebaum said. Jackson was confirmed 53-47 and will become the first Black female justice on the high court. Presiding over the vote was Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black woman to reach that office.

“How can we have a dialogue today if it isn’t even possible in the United States Senate?” Kassebaum said. “We cannot have people who are just going to be this way or that way. It’s the Democrats here and the Republicans here.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Kansas Dem governor dangles new vetoes in front of GOP legislators eager for fresh fight

TOPEKA — The legislative process in Kansas is a numbers game that folks conveniently boil down to the trifecta of 63, 21 and one.

This odd set of figures represents the narrowest margin in which bills can be passed in the House and Senate — 63 in the House and 21 in the Senate. The single digit is tied to a governor’s power of the pen. A few quick snaps of the wrist and a Kansas governor can veto any bill.

Legislators, of course, have recourse. When Gov. Laura Kelly vetoes a bill, as the Democrat did repeatedly in recent weeks, she can be overridden by the House and Senate. Republicans will need to corral two-thirds majorities to do so. That’s 84 of 125 votes in the House and 27 of 40 votes in the Senate.

At least two bills rejected by Kelly, probably more, will be put on the override docket. That drama will play out after legislators return Monday to Topeka. The backdrop is the 2022 campaign for governor pitting the Democratic incumbent against likely GOP nominee Derek Schmidt, the attorney general.

“Rather than listen to parents and female athletes,” said Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, “her decision to veto the parents’ bill of rights and the fairness in women’s sports act demonstrate she is still largely controlled by the left.”

Masterson said Republican lawmakers would respond to Kelly’s veto of a statewide public school and college ban on participation by transgender girls and women in sports. The policy was a high priority of religious conservatives and part of a national movement to slow momentum of the LGBTQ rights.

Under the Kansas bill, a person designated as male at birth who transitioned to female would be forbidden from taking part in girl’s and women’s school sports.

It’s about ‘hate groups’

Rep. Susan Ruiz, D-Kansas City, said the anti-trans legislation was the work of “hate groups” that don’t want to allow families to make important decisions about people different from themselves. The Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council, both listed as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, have supported transgender sports legislation and broadly sought to curtail LGBTQ rights.

“The reality is this bill is not about sports at all. It has nothing to do with sports. This is about discrimination against children,” Ruiz said.

Supporters of the bill said targeting of transgender girls, but not boys, was necessary to avoid unfair competitive advantages in sports.

“Some have mentioned to me, ‘We don’t have a problem in Kansas,'” said Rep. Susan Humphries, a Wichita Republican who voted for the bill. “I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but that’s not the point.”

Humphries said the point of amending Kansas statute to disqualify transgender girls or women from school or college sports programs was to prevent a “natal male” from stealing awards, scholarships and dreams of competitors with birth certificates listing the individual as a girl at birth.

The imperative to act could be explained in the same way House staff daily check each representative’s desk drawer as “proactive protection” against security threats, she said.

“We’ve never had an incident as far as I know in the House, but we act in advance,” Humphries said. “We wear hard hats in construction zones.”

Kelly vetoed a comparable trans sports bill last year as well as this year’s model dropped into Senate Bill 160. It was sent to her on votes of 74-39 in the House and 25-13 in the Senate. Neither total meets the two-thirds threshold, and many House and Senate members have put their foot down on both sides of the partisan aisle.

Rep. Stephanie Byers, a Wichita Democrat, said the veiled purpose of the unwarranted Kansas bill was to “bully transgender girls back into the closet. Their mental health is considered collateral damage.”

On the other hand, Rep. Tatum Lee, R-Ness City, said LGTBQ activists were angling to bully her into “feeling ashamed of how God made me or my daughter. I’m not a mere pronoun or political talking point.”

Educational rights

In another move irritating to GOP legislators, the governor vetoed Senate Bill 58. It’s the so-called educational bill of rights for parents. It applies to public schools, not private schools. The bill begins by stating the obvious: Parents direct their child’s education as well as moral or religious upbringing.

The bill of rights bill, however, also requires teachers to share with parents all curriculum materials to be used in the classroom – in advance. As always, parents can opt their kids out by requesting alternative accommodations from the teacher. The bill passed 67-46 in the House, far below the two-thirds to deflect a veto, and also affirmed district policies allowing parents to challenge books on school library shelves.

Rep. Patrick Penn, R-Wichita, voted for the bill of rights because the legislation placed into state law language unequivocally declaring parents have the definitive right to direct upbringing, education and care of their children.

“To raise our children, it takes their responsible parents, not provoking our children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord,” Penn said. “Our kids do not belong to the state, ‘educrats,’ teachers’ unions or the village. Our kids belong to their parents.”

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, D-Overland Park, pointed to irony that backers of the bill of rights insisted parents decide how their children were educated, but the tool made available to a single complaining parent could force school libraries to remove a book from all students in the district.

Over in the Senate, which voted 23-15 for the education bill of rights, there was bipartisan dissent. Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, said the legislation amounted to an assault on K-12 public school teachers. In a speech that dripped with Doll’s frustration, he cringed at the idea of conservatives growing the educational bureaucracy.

“We have way too many laws, way too many rules. We’re going after public educators. It really saddens me,” Doll said.

Other veto fodder

It may have eluded some people that Kelly also dispatched Senate Bill 161, which would have allowed unmanned electric devices to travel on streets and sidewalks to deliver consumer products.

The governor spiked a bill extending the length of time a person could maintain a low-cost health plan. It’s supposed to be merely a bridge to a more permanent plan, but marketers of the plans want a policy duration up to 36 months. These plans don’t cover pre-existing conditions, and that wasn’t good enough for a governor who supports the Affordable Care Act and has pleaded with the Legislature to expand eligibility for Medicaid to serve thousands of low-income Kansans.

Kelly vetoed a bill prohibiting cities and counties from adopting rules to forbid businesses from sending away customers with one-use plastic bags or containers that often end up blowing throughout communities. Her argument was local governments should decide for themselves.

COVID-19 liability

Another potential piece of override bait is Senate Bill 286. Kelly rejected the bill offering broader lawsuit liability protections for doctors and health providers during the pandemic. It also added to penalties for battery in an attempt to deter dangerous people from harming front-line health workers at hospitals or clinics.

Rep. Trevor Jacobs, a Fort Scott Republican, said he thought the liability loophole was a disservice to patients and a boon to corporations. His 78-year-old aunt was hospitalized with pneumonia during the pandemic and after several days contracted COVID-19. Her husband of 60 years was forbidden to visit her, and she fell into a coma before dying. Jacobs performed the funeral service for the aunt.

“I’m going to vote ‘no’ on this only for personal, selfish reasons,” Jacobs said. “The hospital staff was kind of negligent. I know that we heard that there could be lawsuits. We’ll pass legislation to protect the hospital and given them immunity, but what about patients’ immunities?”

Rep. Bradley Ralph, an attorney and Republican from Dodge City, said he understood objections to the legislation, but the final version trimmed scope of immunity provisions and the result was sound policy. Immunity flows to physicians who agree to treat vaccinated and unvaccinated patients.

“This protects all the doctors,” Ralph said. “There’s nothing in here that says you have to treat a special way.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Kansas GOP senator demands immediate removal of ‘Gender Queer’ book from school library

Republican Sen. Rick Kloos added his voice to a national movement to ban books from public school libraries by demanding immediate removal from Shawnee Heights High School of the autobiography “Gender Queer” because he contends it wasn’t suitable for teenagers.

Kloos, who operates the Topeka thrift story and church God’s Storehouse, issued the ultimatum to Shawnee Heights superintendent Tim Hallacy, arguing the text and visual content of the book should be considered “pornographic.” He said in Facebook posts that Shawnee Heights parents had registered an objection to “Gender Queer,” a 2019 book by Maia Kobabe.

He said he was aware of the broader campaign in the United States to clean out “such books” from school libraries because insights could be consumed by someone as young as 14.

“I am addressing this because the content, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is inappropriate,” Kloos said. “In this case, this book has gone too far, and I pray he takes action for its removal.”

Hallacy said he met with Kloos Wednesday to listen to the senator’s concerns and to explain the school district had a policy established more than 15 years ago for review of complaints about books in the library or part of the classroom curriculum. He said he didn’t have authority to walk into the high school’s library and unilaterally make the decision to jettison a book.

A school district committee, the superintendent said, was responsible for reviewing content of books subject to complaints prior to action by the district. Currently, he said, four books regarding race or LGBTQ issues were undergoing review. On Thursday, a complaint was submitted to the district about “Gender Queer.”

“I informed the senator we have a process,” Hallacy said.

Kloos said he wasn’t interested in waiting for the drawn-out district review. When a book is under review by the district, it remains available to students.

“While there may be other books subject to a removal process,” the senator said, “I believe this one should be removed immediately.”

Hallacy said parents had the opportunity under current Shawnee Heights policy to opt a child out of academic subjects or to avoid certain materials viewed as objectionable by that family. He said the flurry of book challenges, however, raised questions about whether it was appropriate for an individual or group of parents to decide what other children in the school district had the opportunity to read in class or at the library.

“These efforts are targeting groups of people who have always struggled with being marginalized,” the superintendent said. “It is a slippery slope. Where do these requests end?”

The controversy in Shawnee Heights surfaced while Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed a bill passed by the Kansas Legislature establishing in state law a bill of rights for parents in terms of K-12 public education. The House and Senate would have an opportunity to override her veto when they return April 25 to Topeka.

The bill would affirm in state statute policies of school districts that allow parents to challenge the use of educational materials. In addition, the bill would establish a statewide system for parents to review instructional materials to be used during education on the parent’s child.

Senate Majority Leader Larry Alley, R-Winfield, lauded Kloos for meeting with the superintendent and advocating removal of the “Gender Queer” chronicle of the author’s journey of self-identity, including the confusion of adolescent crushes, coming out to family and society and bonding with friends over erotic fiction.

“This visit highlights what parents should be doing and the reason for the parents’ bill of rights,” Alley said.

Kloos’ statements on Facebook urging Hallacy to promptly pull the book off the high school library’s shelf elicited dozens of responses on social media. He was both praised and condemned.

Sara Weeder-Korus, who has a child enrolled in the Shawnee Heights district, said she was opposed to teachers or librarians being involved in educational issues of sexuality. She did recognize some parents failed to deal with the issue at home.

“That doesn’t mean the school gets a green light to parade pornography in front of my child in the name of gender wokeness,” Weeder-Korus said.

In response to Weeder-Korus, Nathan Schmidt said “Gender Queer” wasn’t pornography.

“It’s a cartoon, much like Sen. Kloos,” Schmidt said. “They call it porn because they know that will get people who would never challenge conservative dogma all fired up. It obviously worked.”

Andy New, who said he had four children in Shawnee Heights schools, suggested all books recommended for inclusion in the school library be reviewed and put to some form of vote. He said the “Gender Queer” book was pornographic and “doesn’t belong on book shelves of any age.”

Ben Blankley said on Facebook the senator’s public demand for removal of a library book was bad for Kansas business, because employers expected employees to be “culturally competent and knowledgeable about diversity, equity and inclusion, including LGBTQ issues.”

“Removing high quality, diverse reading materials from our Kansas schools ensures that we do not produce highly trained future workers who remain in demand in a global economy,” Blankley said.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Kansas education commissioner publicly apologizes for racist story on Native Americans

TOPEKA — The Kansas commissioner of public education apologized Tuesday for telling attendees of an online education conference that when growing up he attempted to convince people visiting the state they should be more afraid of dangerous American Indians than violent tornadoes.

Randy Watson, who was suspended without pay for one month after disclosure of his racist remark, said during the Kansas State Board of Education meeting that the recollection of a story from his youth betrayed his personal 40-year career in education devoted to valuing every student. It was his first public comment about the offensive statement uttered in mid-February to people participating in a professional education conference.

“I really let some people down and hurt people with things I said. The very people and groups of kids I tried to uplift every day, I failed to do so on that occasion,” he said.

Gov. Laura Kelly joined Native American legislators and tribal leaders who called on Watson to step down from the administrative job overseeing coordination of K-12 public education in Kansas. He submitted a letter resignation, but the state Board of Education voted to reject the offer following a closed-door meeting with Watson. Instead, the 10-member board ordered the commissioner to serve a one-month suspension.

“There are a lot of kids, every teacher knows this, that go unnoticed. They are not the 4.0. They’re not in sports,” Watson said. “I dedicated my life to really trying to make sure that every child felt valued, every family was uplifted, especially kids that maybe didn’t have a family life.”

Video of Watson’s remarks obtained through an Kansas Open Records Request showed Watson speaking to the Kansas Virtual Learning Conference. He made a reference to a tornado in the 1990s before sharing with listeners that during his youth he attempted to convince relatives they ought to be more frightened of American Indians than of violent storms that might erupt in Kansas.

“I had some cousins from California. They were petrified of tornadoes,” Watson said on the video. “They’d come visit us, you know, in the summer. They were like, ‘Are we going to get killed by a tornado?’ And I’d say, ‘Don’t worry about that, but you got to worry about the Indians raiding the town at any time.’ And they really thought that. Grow up in California, I guess you don’t know much of the history of Kansas.”

Watson, a former school administrator in McPherson, was hired by the state Board of Education as the commissioner in 2014. He began his teacher career at Tescott High School.

Board of Education chairman Jim Porter said the board decided remarks by Watson weren’t career ending and the board was committed to engaging in restorative justice. Porter bristled after others in state leadership publicly pressured Watson to step down, despite the state Board of Education’s responsibility for personnel decisions of executive leadership in the state education department.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

'We work harder': Two Kansas Dems claim Republican offered startling defense of gender pay gap

TOPEKA — A Hutchinson state representative purportedly declared aloud during a bipartisan Kansas House floor recognition of Women’s History Month that women earned less in the workplace because men worked with more intensity at their jobs, two female legislators said.

The ceremony before the Kansas Legislature adjourned until April 25 involved eight Republican and Democratic women legislators who honored females who broke U.S. professional barriers and who shared their despair at women receiving 82 cents for every $1 earned by men.

Rep. Heather Meyer, a Democrat from Overland Park, said in an interview Wednesday that Rep. Paul Waggoner, a Republican seeking a third term in the House, said aloud a reason for the salary disparity was that men had a stronger work ethic. She heard the remark last week while sitting at her House floor desk next to Rep. Linda Featherston, D-Overland Park. Waggoner’s desk is behind those of Featherston and Meyer.

“I hear from behind me, ‘That’s because we work harder,'” Featherston said. “I hear lots of comments behind me and I usually just let it go because it’s not worth it. But that was too far. So, I turned around and I told him that I worked three jobs to put my husband through med school, and I certainly worked as hard as he ever did. I turned back around, and then I heard him say, ‘Well, it’s a statistical fact.’ And that’s when I was really like, OK, fine, you want to double down on this.”

She said she was so startled by Waggoner’s conclusions that she neglected to mention she had two preschoolers at home while she supported her husband’s pursuit of a medical education.

In a brief interview, Waggoner said Meyer and Featherston weren’t portraying his remark accurately. He declined to elaborate at that time, but later sent a statement by email to the Kansas Reflector.

Waggoner said a female legislator addressing the full House about Women’s History Month had noted in her speech the wage gap between men and women widened after a woman gave birth.

“I said, to myself, something to the effect that, ‘Well, married men then work harder and longer,’ which is a known fact that is well established,” Waggoner said. “Featherston, surprisingly having heard my comment, turned around and said, ‘Well, I worked two jobs to put my husband through med school.’ At which point, the matter was dropped.”
“My comment was about married men and I stand by it,” he said. “You can Google the topic and find much the same analysis. It has nothing to do with the average woman’s earning either before or after marriage. It was just about males.”

In April 2019, the Hutchinson News reported Waggoner used the derogatory term “harpies” to refer to women while considering an invitation to speak at meetings of the Hutchinson chapter of Women for Kansas. The organization’s mission was to “restore integrity, transparency and fiscal responsibility and balance to Kansas by electing moderates to public office.”

Waggoner, a conservative Republican, appears to have mistakenly sent an email to Betty Taylor, the chapter’s co-leader, that was addressed to “Allie,” whom Waggoner asked for advice on whether to accept requests from Women for Kansas.

“Do you think I should ever do this in the future?” Waggoner asked in that email. “Since I can speak to liberals and conservatives? Or, would this just bring out the harpies?”

The term harpy refers to a predatory or shrewish person. In Greek mythology, it defined a foul creature with the face of a woman and body of a bird. English playwright William Shakespeare used the word to refer to a nasty or annoying woman.

Meyer, who at times was the primary household wage earner when her husband was temporarily out of work, said she and Featherston initially looked at each other in shock because it would be inappropriate for a legislator to articulate what could be viewed as a defense of gender pay inequities while watching his peers honor Women’s History Month.

“It’s pretty hurtful,” Meyer said. “We can’t really tackle the root of the issue, because the men in charge are the root of the issue.”

Featherston afterward posted to social media that a legislator, who she didn’t identify, offered a comment that could be considered justification for salary differentials between men and women.

“I would just encourage him to think about the women in his life, and the women that are his constituents, and think about if he really meant to talk about them that way,” Featherston said.

During the House ceremony, Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, said a Pew Research Center survey indicated 42% of women had experienced gender discrimination at work.

There is a related “motherhood penalty,” she said, because women lose ground in the pay-equity fight after giving birth and men tend to earn more after becoming fathers.

“As recent years have painfully indicated,” Ballard said, “inequality and sexism are still very much alive and prevalent in the United States and world.”

The United States marked “Equal Pay Day” on March 15, which exists to demonstrate women had to work 74 extra days in 2022 to catch up to what men earned in 2021.

“This Equal Pay Day, it is clear that pay equity remains elusive for many women regardless of their occupation or sector,” said Nicole Mason, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Kansas Senate Republicans tee up redistricting map with goal of maintaining dominance

The Kansas Senate offered preliminary approval of a redistricting map Wednesday defended as a politically fair arrangement of the 40 districts designed to retain Republicans’ supermajority in the chamber and come to terms with population growth in urban areas.

The map presented by Sen. Rick Wilborn, the McPherson Republican who chairs the Senate Redistricting Committee, was denounced by Democrats as a violation of guidelines related to maintaining integrity of political subdivisions, preserving communities of interest and avoiding incumbent-on-incumbent races. The Senate rejected three alternative maps suggested by individual senators.

Wilborn said the GOP map would create 40 districts with population deviations of less than 5% from the average of 73,000 residents.

Republicans hold a 29-11 partisan advantage in the Senate, and Wilborn said the new map would hypothetically maintain that GOP edge based on application of 2020 vote totals. None of the senators, who serve four-year terms, must worry about consequences of redistricting until the 2024 election cycle.

“We solidified districts for both parties,” said Wilborn, who characterized the map in Senate Bill 563 as the GOP’s best offer to Democrats. “Believe me, if we wanted to be much harder, we could have come up with a map where it would be 32-8. We chose to be fair. Every district was rearranged somewhat.”

Lenexa Sen. Dinah Sykes, leader of Senate Democrats, said it was difficult to redraw 40 districts in response to the 120,000-person population growth in metropolitan areas and abide by other guidelines important when weighing the legal standing of redistricting maps.

“I think I’m going to start a fund for wrinkle cream because this process has aged me quite a bit,” Sykes said.

Sykes said she couldn’t support Wilborn’s “Liberty 3” map because it gutted the core of the district served by Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, and moved him into a showdown with GOP Sen. Beverly Gossage, R-Eudora.

“The process is broken. Incredibly broken,” Holland said. “I’m not here to complain about me being drawn into another senator’s district. This process has totally eviscerated my communities of interest in the 3rd District.”

Holland’s “Free State 5” map and Sykes’ “Eisenhower” map were rejected by the Senate. In addition, a map offered by Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, was deflected.

In addition to the possible Gossage-Wilborn showdown, the Senate GOP’s map would place Wilborn in a district with Sen. Michael Fagg, an El Dorado Republican. It is assumed Wilborn won’t seek re-election.

The Senate is scheduled to take a final vote Thursday on the redistricting map. It would need to be endorsed by the Kansas House before sent to the desk of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

The Kansas House is moving toward a vote on its own redistricting map recalculating shape of 125 districts. In terms of the federal congressional map, Kelly voted that plan. The House and Senate was able to override her veto, but the U.S. House map is now subject of three lawsuits.

Under the Kansas Constitution, state lawmakers must redraw state House and Senate districts, the four U.S. House districts and the 10 state Board of Education districts every 10 years to make them as equal in population as possible. In 2012, the Kansas Legislature failed to complete the mapping and it was turned over to a panel of U.S. District Court judges.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Kansas governor calls on education commissioner to resign for discriminatory remark

Gov. Laura Kelly said Thursday the state’s education commissioner must resign after making a discriminatory remark and urged the Kansas State Board of Education to work on addressing problems raised by the comments.

Randy Watson, the commissioner of education since 2014, was speaking during a virtual conference earlier this month when he made an insensitive statement about American Indians. A social media post quoting Watson couldn’t be verified.

The governor said the state of Kansas and the state Board of Education must take seriously commentary by officials that expressed insensitivity.

“There is no question that Randy Watson must resign his position immediately, given his comments last week,” Kelly said. “However, the Board of Education must also focus on ways to address these issues going forward.”

Kelly said the state should build on “this moment to celebrate diversity and ensure that all Kansas school children are treated with dignity and respect.”

The state Board of Education scheduled for Friday a closed-door meeting to discuss an “inappropriate” comment by Watson. It is considered a personnel matter, which allows that conversation to occur in executive session. If the board dismissed Watson, that action would be affirmed in public session.

Board members Ann Mah, of Topeka, and Jim McNiece, of Wichita, said they wanted to learn more about what Watson said during a virtual conference that occurred Feb. 14-15.

Mah couldn’t provide Watson’s exact words, but she said they would be considered “inappropriate” and out of character for the commissioner.

On Wednesday, Kansas Reflector submitted a Kansas Open Records Act request for a video of Watson that would shed light on the controversy.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Convicted Maryland fraudster who ripped off Kansans for $845,000 nearly avoids prison

TOPEKA — Ronald Morley was busted about 15 years ago for engaging in crooked Mexico real estate deals and received a lifetime ban from the state of Maryland from engaging in the securities and investment advising business.

That didn’t stop him from participating in a multistate Ponzi scheme that ripped off four Kansans of $845,900 between 2011 and 2013. The losses hit the victims hard, but that wasn’t the most alarming element of Morley’s criminal saga.

In 2016, Morley was charged in Shawnee County with 12 felony counts of securities fraud linked to losses of the four individuals in Kansas. Two years later, he entered a no contest plea on two felony counts. He hoped to avoid jail time, but a presumption written into Kansas law says defendants should be sentenced to prison if guilty of perpetuating fraud in excess of $25,000.

Morley’s victims, blue-collar folks and a pair of elderly siblings, asked a Shawnee County District Court judge for justice. They requested he be ordered to pay restitution. They directly or indirectly urged that Morley be imprisoned.

“I regret that you’re experiencing what you’re experiencing,” Morley told his victims in court. “I serve the same God as you do … and I hope you can find forgiveness in your heart.”

District Court Judge Mark Braun took Morley’s words to heart and let him walk. Braun, who has since retired from the branch, used his judicial authority to depart from state sentencing guidelines. He told Morley to serve 36 months of probation and reimburse the Kansas victims.

Braun said he gave this white-collar criminal a break because he believed Morley accepted responsibility for his crimes — a point disputed by the Kansas attorney general’s office.

“It’s the overall issue of accepting responsibility for entering a plea to the two offenses and agreeing to pay restitution is where I’m hanging my hat,” the sentencing judge said.

Hold on there

Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office appealed the sentence handed down by Braun. The attorney general’s objective was to convince an appellate court the sentence was unjustified and get the case remanded to district court for a corrective sentence that included prison time.

The Kansas Court of Appeals agreed with the attorney general, writing a sentence of probation underemphasized Morley’s criminal complicity. With nothing to lose, Morley appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court. The state’s highest court affirmed the Court of Appeals in 2021.

Supreme Court Justice Dan Biles, writing for the court, said the case was an opportunity to concur with the Court of Appeals and to clarify standards of review in sentencing departures. He wrote the Supreme Court’s position didn’t suggest a defendant’s taking of responsibility could never serve as compelling reason to depart in sentencing.

“Our abuse of discretion standard necessarily allows for a departure sentence when based on valid mitigating factors supported by the evidence, and there is room for reasonable disagreement whether the proven factors are substantial and compelling under the circumstances, but Morley’s case lies outside that realm,” Biles said.

The result: Morley, 64, was sentenced Tuesday by Shawnee County District Court Judge Jason Geier to 38 months in custody of a Kansas Department of Corrections. The restitution order was affirmed.

Look of malfeasance

Assistant attorney general Stacy Edwards, who pressed the appellate cause against Morley, said the case hinged on two factors. Did the district court judge have “substantial and competent” evidence necessary to consider a downward departure from the sentencing grid recommendation of prison time? If so, did a clear reading of evidence in the case warrant leniency sought by Morley?

“The state believes the answer to both questions is ‘no,'” Edwards said. “The district court shouldn’t have granted a departure on this case because any acceptance of responsibility was minimal.”

She said a “no contest” plea allowed defendants to agree prosecutors were capable of proving guilt, but didn’t require a defendant to enter a plea of guilty. Judges, on the other hand, for practical purposes convert no contest pleas to guilty verdicts. The idea Morley agreed to pay some restitution — just $50,000 in commissions earned from the four Kansas investors, not their full losses of $845,900 — wasn’t true acceptance of responsibility, she said.

Edwards said the attorney representing Morley portrayed his client as merely a “consultant” to Summit Trust Co., which was involved in the Ponzi scheme based in Pennsylvania, and therefore his client shouldn’t be held responsible for loss of principle investments.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed documents in 2018 that concluded Morley and his wife, Diane, took part in a Ponzi that took in $33 million from at least 130 investors from 2008 to 2014. Overall, the Morleys targeted retirees with limited knowledge of investment strategy a chance to buy unregistered securities with the promise of big returns. Overall, the Morleys earned $3.1 million in commissions in this scam.

In Kansas, Edwards said, the victims were never told by Morley he had been permanently barred in 2006 from the securities industry in Maryland. She said Morley neglected to inform these unsuspecting Kansans their investment in preferred stock in Summit Trust was a high-risk venture rather than the “safe investment” with a guaranteed quarterly dividend of 6%.

The four victims, who weren’t identified in court documents, were shaken by the financial disaster. One man, who was so ashamed he asked his family not to attend the sentencing hearing, said the loss of $352,000 inherited from his parents meant his child’s college fund was vanquished by Morley. Separately, a pair of siblings both lost $120,000 inherited from parents on sale of the family’s farm.

“This was a loss of blue-collar worker generational wealth,” Edwards said. “The harm here is significant.”

Sincere remorse

Topeka criminal defense attorney James Heathman said it was difficult to understand why a no contest plea would be viewed as anything other than acceptance of criminal responsibility.

“He admitted his role,” Heathman said. “He admitted he didn’t give information that he should have to the individuals. He admitted he made statements that were misleading. He allowed them to be misled.”

Morley knew one result of pleading no contest to the two charges was that he could be sent to prison, Heathman said. That wouldn’t be the proper resolution, Heathman said, for someone who expressed sincere remorse and was prepared to pay restitution.

“It was his desire to pay these people back and make them whole,” Heathman said.

In addition, Heathman said, Morley avoided a guilty plea because that would have meant loss of his license to sell insurance in Maryland. The defendant made a “significant income” on life and health insurance that could be applied to restitution, Heathman said.

At the original sentencing in Shawnee County, Morley vowed he would work hard to repay his debts. Here’s what he said: “I will take my last dying breath making certain that you get every dime of your money back. The only way that I can do that is to stay in the insurance business and enable my experience to be applied to my obligations.”

Despite a troubled history in the securities industry and the lifetime ban in Maryland, as of 2020, he was still trusted enough by regulators there to sell insurance.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Pompeo's PAC spends $2.2 million as he lays the foundation for a presidential campaign

Former Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo filled key roles in the administration of President Donald Trump before forming a political action committee to support conservative candidates in 2022 and potentially lay the foundation for a presidential campaign in 2024.

Pompeo, who served Trump as CIA director and secretary of state, is viewed as a potential contender for the Republican presidential nomination. He’s chairman of Champion American Values PAC, or CAVPAC. It was formed one year ago and raised $3.2 million by the end of 2021.

The PAC spent more than $2 million, including contributions to a handful of Republicans who triggered ire of the former president by either refusing to challenge outcome of the 2020 election or supporting President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill in 2021.

Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, said Pompeo seemed ambitious and the PAC would help him stay politically relevant during a year in which he won’t be on a ballot.

It’s not clear Pompeo would seek the GOP nomination for president, Miller said, but Trump has found ways to keep potential candidates on edge. Anybody thinking about a Republican presidential bid must walk a line between not alienating Trump or his hardcore supporters and participating in the normal process of spreading endorsements and checks among candidates in the party, Miller said.

“Trump is really attacking what seems like a lot of Republicans right now over certain votes, positions or things that they did,” Miller said. “It seems like a lot of the establishment types are not falling lockstep in behind Trump, but are going out of their way to praise him and not be mean about what he is doing.”

CAVPAC spends $2.1M

Federal Election Commission reports show CAVPAC spent $2.2 million last year to begin building political alliances that would be useful for a candidate for president.

Recipients of the PACs funding included U.S. Sen. James Lankford, a conservative Oklahoma Republican who was prepared to object to counting swing states’ electoral votes as part of an attempt by Trump loyalists to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Lankford, who received $2,500 from CAVPAC in October, was on the Senate floor Jan. 6 outlining reasons to oppose certification of President Joe Biden’s victory when a mob breached the U.S. Capitol. Lankford subsequently voted to certify the 2020 election.

Pompeo’s PAC donated $2,500 to at least three Republican congressmen — Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Don Bacon of Nebraska and Andrew Garbarino of New York — among the 13 GOP members voting in support of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.

Trump said GOP lawmakers joining Democrats to vote for the bill ought to be ashamed, adding: “Very sad that the RINOs in the House and Senate gave Biden and Democrats a victory.”

In terms of CAVPAC, Pompeo said the immediate objective was to help Republicans claim majorities in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate while also expand reach of conservatives in state legislatures and governorships.

“I think 2022 is going to be a really good year all across the country for CAVPAC-endorsed candidates. We are going to win races from school board to the United States Senate,” Pompeo said in an social media message to supporters.

The big question

Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political science professor, said Trump’s hints about campaigning for president a third time were creating campaign gridlock. Candidates such as Pompeo are likely to hold back until Trump’s intent becomes evident, he said.

“Pompeo is an attractive GOP presidential candidate,” Beatty said. “In a normal American political era, he’d be running for president full out right now.”

Michael Smith, a member of the political science faculty at Emporia State University, said Pompeo would have a mountain to climb before reaching a level where he would be competitive nationally.

Pompeo was elected to the U.S. House four times from the Wichita region, but his popularity in Kansas has been questioned because he never held statewide political office before joining the Trump administration in Washington, D.C. Trump remains popular with his base in Kansas, Smith said, but there’s no consensus on who the state’s conservatives would make the second choice for president.

“I wouldn’t call him first tier,” Smith said. “The big question for me is: Now that Trump is out of office, is it Trump or something he represents?”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Retired Kansas judge’s X-rated case inspires thesis linking Orwell, Snowden and Austin Powers

TOPEKA — Magistrate Judge Marty Clark’s posting of X-rated pictures of himself to a couples’ dating website and erotic communication with a married woman triggered an ethics complaint that resulted in a Kansas Supreme Court sanction of public censure.

Outcome of his case was more or less a foregone conclusion, but the concurring opinion authored by Justice Caleb Stegall framed the scandal in terms of a scholarly debate weaving court precedent and Bible scripture with ideas embodied by dystopian author George Orwell, surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden and movie character Austin Powers.

“While Judge Marty K. Clark’s behavior was embarrassing, foolish and grossly immoral, it was not a violation of any of our rules governing judicial conduct,” Stegall wrote. “The behavior we are talking about consists entirely of the lawful, private, consensual sexual practices of Judge Clark.”

Surveillance of all kinds, including the self-surveillance favored by Clark, with high-powered video and audio devices and assisted by the ease of digital-media publication has led to substantial increase in government and employer intrusion into private lives of individuals, he said.

“Wisdom counsels that Big Brother himself is not obliged to act on every scrap of tittle-tattle that comes his way from ill-meaning Little Brother,” Stegall said.

Clark posted to the Club Foreplay website nude and partially nude photographs of himself, including one image of him standing in water with his penis exposed. He shared images and interacted via text and email with a Missouri woman he met during 2019 at the Lake of the Ozarks. He did so during weekday work hours, but it’s not clear he was on the clock. The woman’s disgruntled husband eventually filed an ethics complaint against the judge.

Clark served Russell County for 23 years before retiring days ahead of a judicial review panel’s recommendation of public censure in May 2021. He didn’t challenge fundamental conclusions of wrongdoing during Supreme Court oral arguments in October. On Friday, the high court said Clark warranted public censure for conduct undermining confidence in the judiciary.

Blackmail, intimidation

Chris Joseph, an attorney representing Clark, said the Supreme Court ought to focus on behavior of judges directly connected to their legal responsibilities. He said the justices were essentially “regulating the bedroom” by weighing in on private conduct of a sexual nature. It mirrors disdain exhibited by some people of judges who were in homosexual relationships or consumed alcoholic beverages, he said.

“It’s my position the court shouldn’t venture into that realm,” Joseph said.

Todd Thompson, an attorney serving as judicial examiner in the Clark case, said it was an ethical breach for a judge to massage his private organ for purposes of posting photographs to a website for swingers. He used a phony name on the website, Thompson said, suggesting he was aware of the impropriety.

Clark sent salacious texts to the married Missouri woman discussing details of a potential sexual encounter in his judicial chambers in Russell County, Thompson said.

“The judge is subjecting himself, when he engages in this type of conduct, to the possibility of being intimidated or blackmailed by people who have these photographs,” Thompson said.

The Supreme Court decided public censure, accomplished by publishing a statement declaring Clark’s misconduct, was sufficient. Clark isn’t an attorney, so he won’t be practicing law. The lower-level court sanction didn’t preclude him from seeking election as a magistrate judge in the future.

Clark’s retirement message, released by the judicial branch, didn’t mention his disciplinary case. He said he appreciated the chance given him at a young age to serve Russell County.

“I became a judge because I wanted the opportunity to help people,” he said. “Working with child-in-need-of-care cases and adoptions is the most satisfying part of the job.”

‘Unforgiveable sin’

Half of the 27-page decision comprised the concurring opinion from Stegall, one of the court’s conservatives who was appointed by Gov. Sam Brownback. Stegall said Clark shouldn’t remain on the bench, but the proper approach for addressing moral qualms about a judge’s private behavior would be for voters to oust him or her at the next election or to initiate impeachment proceedings.

“Judge Clark’s actions did not have any real, factual connection to his role as a judge,” wrote Stegall in the opinion joined by Justice Keynen Wall. “So, what is really going on? In short, Judge Clark has embarrassed us — the examiner, the commission, this court, the judiciary and the wider legal community. And, this may be the unforgivable sin of our day.

“The complex and ubiquitous shaming and shunning rituals our society has concocted and enacted in recent decades may best be understood as an elaborate response to collective embarrassment. Scapegoating and ‘cancelling’ the most embarrassing among us becomes a quasi-religious way of purging collective shame and guilt.”

Stegall said the state’s examiner and the disciplinary panel that recommended public censure acted as “grand inquisitors on behalf of an allegedly scandalized public.”

“Who has really been scandalized?” Stegall asked. “As with the excessive rhetoric, the legal justifications given by the examiner and panel in this case are thin cover for the naked embarrassment and the accompanying need to close ranks and restore a facade of judicial superiority.”

Stegall wrote it was absurd for judges to be held up as a class of rulers who must be obeyed because they possessed moral or intellectual superiority.

“I may be an unexpected defender of ‘consensually non-monogamous’ judges — and I have no difficulty condemning adultery as morally destructive — but above all else, the rule of law condemns the arbitrary and unaccountable power of the state to pick winners and losers, reward friends and punish enemies, and protect its own interests above the public’s. Such abuses and the hypocrisy they reveal are the real threat to the legitimacy and integrity of the judiciary,” Stegall said.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Workers’ compensation law offers bleak future for Wichita nurse who nearly died of COVID-19

Via Christi Health registered nurse Brian Wilhite interacted a couple times in August 2020 with what was thought to be a hospital patient with routine respiratory issues.

In fact, Wilhite’s patient was extraordinary and would dramatically change his life.

Wilhite wasn’t aware the patient had apparently slipped through the Wichita hospital’s coronavirus screening protocol. By the time it was confirmed the person had contracted COVID-19, Wilhite believes the damage had been done. Wilhite eventually began to experience a tickle in his throat, fever and sweats. He tested positive for the virus. His medical condition nosedived while hospitalized with a ferocity that compelled doctors to conclude he was dying and a candidate for hospice.

His risky transfer to Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City, which specializes in lung impairments, saved his life.

“I don’t remember going to ICU,” Wilhite said. “I was in a coma. I went into complete lung failure. I’ve got COVID brain. I’m a long-hauler.”

Wilhite, 50, is a Kansas Army National Guard veteran who served more than 20 years in uniform and deployed to Iraq. He worked as a security coordinator at Via Christi while in the military, but upon leaving the Kansas Guard followed a career dream of attending nursing school. He was hired as a nurse at Via Christi about five years before the pandemic turned the nation’s hospitals upside down.

He said doctors remained pessimistic that he could return to work as a nurse, and he’s inclined to believe protracted problems associated with COVID-19 made it more likely he was dealing with a permanent disability. He relies on portable oxygen and endures medication for back pain as a result of not being moved for long periods in the hospital. He is easily fatigued. Talking for long periods is a struggle. Sometimes his mind is clouded.

Statutory challenges

The legal challenge to be endured by Brian and Janet Wilhite, their Wichita attorney said, wasn’t of Via Christi’s making. It centered on a Kansas workers’ compensation law written prior to the pandemic. It could be interpreted to block claims for permanent disability among health workers such as Wilhite.

At issue is a plausible reading of Kansas statute that would deny compensation because COVID-19 wasn’t a site-specific malady, such inhaling asbestos at a manufacturing plant. In terms of COVID-19, a person could catch the virus anywhere.

“The statute does not allow ‘diseases of ordinary life,'” said Wichita attorney Jonathan Voegeli. “All our front line workers are called heroes, but no one has heard they are not covering workers’ compensation cases. Morally, I think it’s reprehensible.”

He said the goal was to convince an administrative judge Wilhite’s case should be eligible for the Kansas workers’ compensation system, which was established a century ago to provide protection to workers injured doing their job in the normal course of business. The next step would be to secure permanent and total disability status for Wilhite to gain financial support and medical coverage, Voegeli said.

He said the case highlighted the reality that Kansas had the lowest payout for workplace disability in the United States. The financial cap in Kansas was set at $155,000. In Wilhite’s case, that would replace less than three years of his nursing salary.

The Kansas ceiling of $155,000 hasn’t been modified in a decade. The law doesn’t take into account inflation, a worker’s age, severity of injury, income, or type of work performed. The system precludes a person for filing a lawsuit to receive more compensation.

The National Academy of Social Insurance issued a report in October that indicated Kansas was among five states with a cap on workers’ compensation benefits for permanent disabilities. Colorado puts that upper limit at $213,000, while Mississippi stops at $235,000. Indiana is more generous at $390,000 and South Carolina settles at $451,000 — nearly three times what Kansas insurers would have to pay for the same level of disability.

Slow-walk medical care

Former Seaman school district paraprofessional Anita Miller enjoyed working with special-needs children in elementary school. She got along well with teachers and administrators in the Topeka-area district. It was in this full-time job she loved that Miller injured her neck and joined the roster of people with total permanent disabilities.

She often lifted children while in awkward positions, but the result was different on Sept. 29, 2017. She had hoisted a child from a wheelchair and felt burning pain on the left side of her neck. Holding the child in her lap only increased the agony.

“It just started burning,” Miller said. “The nerve pain was just intense. It felt like someone was screaming in my ear all day. By the time I got home, I was just dying.”

She worked off-and-on until 2019, before the discomfort made it impossible to be a productive employee at Seaman schools.

She underwent spine surgery, a move intended to help her regain what she had given up. That included the job, working in the yard and walking three miles a day in the summer months. It didn’t resolve her pain. Still in her early 50s, Miller can putter around the house most mornings, but by afternoon often must recline to alleviate the burn. Sitting for more than 30 minutes or so can be very uncomfortable.

Miller’s experience has provided her a front seat to the Kansas workers’ compensation system. An administrative judge declared her totally disabled, but Seaman’s insurance company appealed. The workers’ compensation appellate board affirmed the judge’s ruling. She was awarded the maximum benefit allowed in Kansas for lost income: $155,000.

She said she continued to struggle with a system that feels designed to give employers and their insurance companies an edge. It doesn’t feel fair that insurance companies have the legal authority to decide which doctor provides her medical care under workers’ compensation. There’s nothing to prevent an insurance company employee from discussing her case with those physicians.

Medication can be helpful in dulling the pain, she said, but it hasn’t provided the answer. She’s request a special procedure to deaden a key nerve, but gaining approval through the workers’ compensation system has been a hassle.

“I think it’s ridiculous they take so long. I would say they slow everything down as much as possible hoping they’ll just give up. That claimants will quit fighting for medical treatments and lost income,” Miller said.

Social Security hiccup

Mike Smith, a farm truck driver in Hodgeman County in southwest Kansas, was collecting Social Security after turning 67 but wanted to keep working until 75. That plan unraveled at 73 when he was seriously injured while stepping down from the cab of a Kenworth.

“I lost balance and fell,” he said. “I couldn’t get up.”

That blow to the head in 2018 left him with compromised vision. For one year, he collected weekly benefits through workers’ compensation as well as his Social Security retirement benefit. That’s when it was noticed Smith was in violation of a 2010 Kansas law requiring a dollar-for-dollar offset when an injured worker was simultaneously receiving Social Security and payments through workers’ compensation.

In short, Smith was overpaid about $32,000. The farm’s insurance company has been clawing back that money.

In 2000, because of the aging population and increasing cost of living, the federal government had created the Senior Citizens Right to Work Act. This reform in federal law enabled Americans at full retirement age — such as Smith — to take a job without reducing their Social Security assistance. However, the Kansas Legislature influenced the intent of that federal law a decade ago by imposing the offset.

Smith said would like the Legislature to repeal the setoff provision of workers’ compensation law, because it unfairly discouraged aging Kansans from remaining in the labor force.

“The fact is, I owned my Social Security. Why did they take that away from me?” he said. “If I had the ability to work until I was 75 years old, they should have paid me until I was 75.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Kansas House Democrat arrested again, triggering new calls for resignation

Democratic Rep. Aaron Coleman’s second arrest in less than one month prompted calls Sunday night for his immediate resignation from office by the governor of Kansas and the top Democratic and Republican leaders of the Kansas House.

Coleman, serving his first year in the House representing a district in Kansas City, Kan., was arrested Saturday in Douglas County on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol. In late October, he was arrested in a misdemeanor domestic battery incident involving a sibling in Johnson County.

Before taking office in January, a handful of House Democrats insisted that he not be seated given reports of past violent and threatening relationships with women.

Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat who served in the Kansas Senate, said Coleman’s latest encounter with law enforcement provided additional evidence of his lack of fitness to be part of the Legislature.

“His continued presence in the Legislature is a disservice to his constituents,” Kelly said. “He should resign immediately and seek the treatment that he needs. If he does not resign, the Legislature should use its process to remove him from office.”

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, and House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said Coleman should resign because he was a detriment to himself and the voters who elected him.

“I want to reiterate what I have said in the past: It is clear Representative Coleman is in dire need of help,” Sawyer said. “For the sake of the state of Kansas, his constituents, and himself, he should resign and concentrate on getting the help he badly needs,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer said the Legislature was “not a healthy environment for someone in this mental state.” In the domestic violence case, a judge ordered Coleman to undergo a mental evaluation.

On social media, Coleman recently challenged the notion that his conduct required resignation from the Kansas House. He made reference to Rep. Vic Miller, a Topeka Democrat who accepted a diversion agreement in July 2020 for driving under the influence.

“Vic Miller. DUI while in office? Very intriguing,” Coleman posted.

Coleman went on to ask Sawyer why there was no public campaign to run Miller out of the Legislature. Miller had been involved in a one-vehicle crash on I-70 in Topeka.

In addition to pending legal troubles, Coleman was instructed earlier this month not to visit office of the Kansas Department of Labor . He was accused of attempting to improperly enter the agency’s office through an employee entrance. He asserted he was there at the behest of constituents regarding unemployment benefit claims.

In August 2020, Coleman defeated seven-term incumbent Democratic state Rep. Stan Frownfelter, losing to the teenager by 14 votes. Coleman won the general election race. Following the November 2020 election, seven Democratic legislators urged him to resign. An official Kansas House inquiry into complaints about Coleman produced a reprimand.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Anti-masker’s obscenity-laced tirade at Kansas Capitol erased from legislature’s video of hearing

TOPEKA — The 28 seconds of profane commentary by Justin Spiehs during a special legislative committee hearing on COVID-19 government overreach was cut from the publicly available video of oral testimony on the Legislature's website and posted to YouTube.

Spiehs, who railed against Lawrence public school officials requiring students to wear face coverings, said he had conducted a daily anti-mask protest for the past four months at the district's headquarters. Spiehs, who referred to himself as a doctor and has taught family and human services classes at Washburn University, said he was tired of being treated like a “second-class citizen" by public officials not willing to listen to his insights into the pandemic.

“We need to ask ourselves: What are we going to do about this? This is not the time to talk," Spiehs told House and Senate members Saturday. “A lot of people might not like what I have to offer for standing up. We've got to bully them out of our lives. It's not pretty and it doesn't look good. It feels good."

Near the end of his three-minutes at the microphone before the Special Committee on Government Overreach and the Impact of COVID-19 Mandates, he transitioned to his irritation with Kansas Reflector editor in chief Sherman Smith. Spiehs previously had sent emails asking Smith for news coverage of complaints with Lawrence public school officials, which Smith declined to provide.

Spiehs concluded his testimony by saying, “F*** Sherman Smith," and called Smith a “little bitch" and “snarky motherf***er," but that audio doesn't exist on the recordings of the meeting available to the public.

The Special Committee on Government Overreach and Impact of COVID 19 Mandates 10/30/2021 www.youtube.com

Sen. Renee Erickson, Wichita Republican and chairwoman of special committee, silenced Spiehs' microphone during the hearing. On Saturday, audio and video of his tirade was available on the Kansas Legislature's live feed of the hearing. Anyone reviewing the hearing Monday hears 28 seconds of silence, with statements by Spiehs and Erickson deleted. The audio returns for Erickson's admonition to the audience.

“I want to remind everybody that we will be respectful in spite of our passionate views," Erickson said. “We will not tolerate that type of language or behavior."

As Spiehs exited the third-floor committee room at the Statehouse, he was followed out by an officer of the Capitol Police.

He had already come to the attention of Rep. John Carmichael, a member of the special committee and a Democrat from Wichita. In part, Carmichael took notice because Spiehs had entered and exited the committee room by a back door used primarily by legislators.

“He had been loitering outside that door watching people coming in and out," Carmichael said.

Carmichael, who is an attorney, said the full audio and visual record of the special committee's meeting ought to be available to the public. He said he would have less concern about the chairwoman muting Spiehs' microphone and consequently preventing the recording of his obscene remarks from the YouTube version, but would object if legislators or legislative staff were instructed to edit Spiehs' remarks out.

“Where does it stop?" Carmichael said. “It should be part of the public record."

Staff with Legislative Administrative Services and other departments declined to say who made the decision the edit the video after the profane remarks initially appeared online or why the decision was made. Kansas Reflector has filed a request under the Kansas Open Records Act for the unaltered video.

Spiehs' testimony came at the end of the two-day meeting in which about 100 people testified against government mandates regarding vaccinations, masks, social distancing and other restrictions to deter spread of coronavirus.

The Special Committee on Government Overreach and the Impact of COVID-19 Mandates didn't allow in-person testimony from people supportive of President Joe Biden's vaccination order applicable to federal employees and contractors. The written testimony from supporters of vaccinations hasn't been posted to the Kansas Legislature's website, but written testimony from opponents of vaccination was posted Friday or Saturday.

Patrick Early, a spokesman for Washburn University in Topeka, said Spiehs remained an employee of the university but wasn't assigned to teach courses at this time. Early said there was no WU prohibition hindering Spiehs from speaking his mind.

“We certainly respect the rights of faculty members to express their opinions," Early said.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.