Gov. Sam Brownback on Monday played down his use of a private email address to communicate, saying most of his communication is done in person or over the phone.
The administration has come under scrutiny this year after revelations that state budget director Shawn Sullivan and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer used private email accounts to discuss Brownback’s budget proposal.
Emails from public officials about public business on private email remain outside the reach of the Kansas Open Records Act, providing an easy way for officials to keep discussions out of public reach.
“Most of the time I call people or I just go over to their office. That’s how I do most of my communication. So that’s the way I do most of it. And if I communicate on email it’s directly to their state accounts, that I know of. There may be some that are different but that’s how most of the communication is done. Most of it is done orally in person over the phone,” Brownback said.
Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said the governor’s comments make him look ridiculous.
“He is trying to defend the indefensible, which is: it is wrong to conduct business on private accounts that are outside the scope of the open records (law),” Ward said. “It’s not hard. It’s 101 open government.”
Emails disclosed earlier this year, some in response to an open records request by The Capital-Journal, showed administration officials discussing the outlines of the governor’s January budget proposal as in early December.
Much of the contents of the emails are unknown. The records request was made to Kansas State University because a university official was included on the email thread. When it fulfilled the request, the university redacted much of text in the emails.
But the information contained on the emails documented that lobbyists David Kensinger and Mark Dugan were included in the discussion. Dugan and Kensinger both have close ties to the administration.
Brownback has been previously known to use a private cellphone to make calls, instead of a state-issued one, saying he can save the state money.
The governor sidestepped a question Monday about why he uses a private email address, instead speaking about why he uses a private phone – a habit that dates back to his time in Congress.
“It started for me quite a while back when I had at one time a federal phone and a private one and I always had to remember, ‘Now, I’m calling home, let’s see I got to get the right one.’ So I said look, I’ll just pay for all of it and deal with myself and then I can use it as my private one and making personal calls home, call my parents. I have friends I stay in touch with and it’s just a simpler way to do it,” Brownback said.
Pressed on if the explanation applies to email as well, the governor said he has multiple email addresses and ways to contact hime and appeared to indicate he had used a private email in Congress.
After reports on the administration’s private email use, Senate Minority Leader Sen. Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, asked Attorney General Derek Schmidt for a legal opinion on the use of private email by public officials. In short, the opinion indicated emails from private accounts are not subject to the open records law even when discussing public business.
While standing by the opinion based on current law, Schmidt has proposed altering the state’s open records law to extend to private email. With lawmakers preoccupied with the state budget, it’s yet to be seen if any effort will be made on Schmidt’s proposal this year.
“This is just basic open government,” Ward said. “We could pass a bill and kick it out and do something while we’re waiting for the tax committees and the appropriations committee to struggle with the big deficit.”