TOPEKA — BuzzFeed is suing Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and his office for refusing to comply with an open records request for emails containing immigration- and election-related terms.
The lawsuit, filed Friday in Shawnee County District Court, says Kobach’s office first asked for $1,025 for 13 hours of work and an attorney’s review, then refused to release any records when a reporter challenged the cost. In denying the request, Sue Becker, senior counsel for KSOS, said records might be unrelated to Kobach’s official business or policy proposals exempt from open records law.
BuzzFeed is asking the court to order Kobach’s office to provide the documents as required by the Kansas Open Records Act and pay attorney fees.
Kobach oversees Kansas elections as secretary of state. He also serves on President Donald Trump’s advisory committee on election integrity and is seeking the Republican nomination to run for Kansas governor.
Kendall Taggart, an investigative data reporter for BuzzFeed, sent her request June 19, asking for emails, including attachments, sent or received since May 1. She asked for emails containing any of 30 terms, including ICE, immigrant, Trump, voter, fraud and Mexican.
A July 5 response signed by BJ Harden, deputy secretary of state for policy, said a staff administrator would need 13 hours to search for the records with an hourly fee of $25, which would cost $325. In addition, a staff attorney would need 20 hours to review the documents with an hourly fee of $35, adding $700 to the bill.
Taggart asked the office to reconsider, noting the public interest in Kobach’s work and lower hourly rates charged by other agencies.
“Such a high fee could potentially limit public access to records,” Taggart wrote July 27.
Becker replied Sept. 5, arguing Kobach’s work with the White House, immigration and presidential advisers, among other things, isn’t being conducted on behalf of Kansas. The six terms that would be covered by KORA, Becker wrote, are voter, voting, fraud, illegal, alien and noncitizen. She then cited a KORA exemption for notes, memoranda or recommendations in which a policy or action is proposed.
In the court filing, BuzzFeed’s attorneys said the response is improper because KORA doesn’t specify an “official business” requirement. Additionally, the petition says Kobach has made “well-known official statements and positions on these issues as Secretary of State for Kansas,” including in testimony before Congress, and the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity identifies Kobach with his state title and as the state’s chief election officer.
BuzzFeed also says KORA requires redactions for policy proposals, rather than a blanket rejection. A BuzzFeed attorney outlined arguments in a Sept. 17 email to Becker.
“KSOS failed to respond to BuzzFeed’s email, necessitating this lawsuit,” the petition said.
Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward, who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor, said Kobach should be more open and transparent.
“As the referee of our elections, he should welcome oversight by the media and other public entities to ensure that our elections are fair and justly supervised,” Ward said.
Taggart referred questions to BuzzFeed public relations, who didn’t immediately respond. A spokeswoman for Kobach didn’t immediately provide a comment.
Capital-Journal reporter Allison Kite contributed to this report.