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SPOTLIGHT
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FBI probe

Published on -4/30/2014, 10:03 AM

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When state lawmakers return to Topeka for their wrap-up session, one of the items that might be considered is the Transparency and Accountability Act. Passed unanimously by the Senate earlier this month, the bill would allow live video-streaming of committee meetings.

While such a program might allow more Kansans to view the sausage-making process, it would not do much to open up middle-of-the-night meetings when unvetted policies have a tendency to become law. The Legislature's passing of the latest school finance package, which took place at 4 a.m. on a Sunday, would not have provided any more accountability had online viewers been awake to watch the shenanigans.

And even if cameras were operating in every nook and cranny of the House and Senate, they certainly wouldn't have captured secretive quid pro quo deals possibly being made in other areas of the Statehouse. To ensure there is transparency and accountability in executive branch offices, cameras won't suffice. Apparently we need the FBI.

During the weekend, the Topeka Capital-Journal revealed the Federal Bureau of Investigation is probing potential influence-peddling by the governor, the executive staff, and former members of Gov. Sam Brownback's team.

The now months-long investigation is not centered on the governor's methodical consolidation of power into one office. Brownback's attempts, many of them successful, to effectively take over both chambers of the Legislature, the Board of Regents, public schools and the judiciary might not sit well with those who believe in checks and balances -- but there's nothing illegal about it.

Taking over the Topeka lobbying industry and steering state contracts toward predetermined organizations run by friends could be a different matter.

The FBI is focusing on the rollout of KanCare, which is the privatized version of the state's $3 billion Medicaid program. Convinced a significant amount of tax dollars could be saved, Brownback selected three for-profit insurance companies to handle all services for 380,000 low-income and disabled Kansans.

The three companies -- AmeriGroup Kansas, United Healthcare of the Midwest, and Sunflower State Health Plan -- all hired lobbying groups run by close associates of the governor. All appear to be connected to Parallel Strategies, an umbrella lobbying organization co-founded by David Kensinger. Kensinger was Brownback's chief of staff when KanCare was being assembled, then Kensinger quit two months before contracts were awarded. He also is the governor's campaign manager and director of Road Map Solutions, the governor's political organization.

Who did the KanCare companies hire? AmeriGroup hired Gary Haulmark, a former deputy Cabinet secretary in the Brownback administration. United Healthcare went with Riley Scott, a senior staff member for Brownback when he was in Washington. Scott also is a co-founder of Parallel Strategies whose mother-in-law is Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita. Sunflower State Health Plan hired Matt Hickam, a former partner of Kensinger at another lobbying firm.

The interconnectedness is compared by some to the infamous K Street lobbyists in the nation's capital who leave federal jobs to make fortunes capitalizing on relationships with former colleagues.

"I believe it is wrong for people as closely connected to the seat of power to be in a position of lobbying for pay," said former Sen. Dick Kelsey, a Republican who represented a district south of Wichita.

"I have a hard time believing any of these things were occurring in the governor's office," said Eileen Hawley, spokeswoman for Brownback.

What the FBI ultimately decides could sway November's gubernatorial election. As of now, there are no charges. And there might not ever be. But even needing the country's top law enforcement agency to examine Brownback's power grab and ensure there is transparency and accountability does little to inspire confidence that all is aboveboard.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net

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