Before primary canvass, After Secretary of State Kris Kobach placed a senior aide in charge of running his office to tamp post-primary drama, the aide remained in contact, asking Kobach’s communications director to review instruction he was preparing to send to county elections officers on the eve of canvassing.
An exchange of emails made available through a Kansas Open Records Act request highlights the blurred distinction between campaign and government staff. The assistant, Eric Rucker, contributed $1,000 to Kobach’s campaign and is a longtime confidant. The communications director, Danedri Herbert, serves as spokeswoman for both the office and campaign.
Herbert’s dual role is allowed by state statute and not unheard of. Rucker only asked her to proofread, and her only suggestion appears to be the addition of Rucker’s title and contact information.
The timing and contents of the email relate to concerns about the possibility of a conflict of interest. Fewer than 200 votes separated Kobach and Gov. Jeff Colyer in their battle for the GOP nomination for governor, and 8,999 provisional ballots were about to be considered.
In a letter asking Kobach to recuse himself from elections duties, Colyer complained that unaffiliated voters had been given provisional ballots by mistake when they should have been told to register for a particular party. Those ballots should be counted, Colyer said.
Kobach accused him of undermining public trust but agreed to place Rucker in charge. Rucker’s message to county elections officers: Any unaffiliated voter who didn’t fill out proper paperwork shouldn’t be counted.
Rucker’s email to Herbert shows he already had provided a copy to “Dez,” a possible reference to Kobach’s chief administrative officer, Desiree Taliaferro.
“Earlier this evening I sent Dez the following proposed press advisory which would be sent to all of the county elections officials involved in the county canvass which begins tomorrow,” Rucker wrote in an Aug. 12 email to Herbert. “Would you please review the text of this advisory and make any grammatical or syntax changes and let me know this evening. I’d like to send this out yet tonight if possible.”
The advisory addresses “significant public discussion regarding whether unaffiliated voters may participate.”
“Public officials should use every effort to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest,” said Greg Orman, an independent candidate for governor. “Secretary Kobach clearly failed to do that in this instance. If an individual is working simultaneously for Kris Kobach’s government office and Kris Kobach’s political campaign, and is receiving a government paycheck, that is highly problematic. How do we know that the state of Kansas isn’t improperly subsidizing the Kobach campaign?”
Herbert didn’t respond to inquiries for this story. She is listed as a public employee in the Secretary of State online directory, and Kobach’s latest campaign finance report shows Herbert received $2,967.48 in the three months before the primary.
State law prohibits the use of public funds or employees to influence elections but provides an exemption for current office-holders and their personal staff.
Kobach already has faced criticism for overseeing a close election in which he had a personal stake. With Johnson County experiencing delays in producing preliminary totals on election night, Kobach told his watch party he had contacted the election commissioner there, Ronnie Metsker, for updates.
Voting rights activist Davis Hammet, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, is involved in a lawsuit over Metsker’s refusal to provide lists of voters who cast advance or provisional ballots. More ballots were disqualified in Johnson County, where Colyer held the majority vote, than in Sedgwick County, which Kobach won. Both counties have election officers appointed by Kobach, and Metsker’s term would have expired at the end of August if Kobach hadn’t renewed it.
The handling of ballots also inspired Hammet to challenge Kobach’s win before the State Objections Board. Rucker served as chairman of the board, which rejected Hammet’s concerns.
In addition to the email exchange between Rucker and Herbert, two emails were denied for exemptions. Sue Becker, senior counsel for the Secretary of State’s office, declined to provide the sender, recipients or date and time of the emails that were withheld. Becker also referred to Herbert as “campaign staff.”
“It raises serious ethics concerns when the government office running elections appears to be operating as an extension of a political campaign,” Hammet said. “The public needs clear answers where the boundaries exist to ensure our tax dollars aren’t paying for political operative.”