A state-run hospital in south-central Kansas dropped a policy that would have restricted staff from speaking to lawmakers without first obtaining permission from officials in Topeka.
Employees at Larned State Hospital received a memo in November admonishing them about speaking to media or lawmakers without first obtaining permission from Angela de Rocha, the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services' director of communications.
De Rocha said she had nothing to do with the new policy. She said it was crafted by the hospital's superintendent, Bill Rein.
Rein, when reached Thursday evening, said he would be available for an interview Friday afternoon after he had a chance to speak to de Rocha.
"Usually, I talk to Angela first before I talk to reporters, like anyone else," Rein said.
However, de Rocha emailed the Kansas City Star within two hours of that phone conversation, saying questions for Rein should be submitted to her in writing.
On Friday, she said Rein was "indisposed." Asked why she would not allow him to conduct a phone interview, de Rocha replied, "Because I want to be able to document, in writing, what we are telling you so there is no confusion and so our response will be reported accurately and even-handedly."
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat and an outspoken critic of the agency, said KDADS' refusal to make Rein available for an interview reflected the agency's overall culture of secrecy.
"The fact they will not let this guy, who is the superintendent of the facility, speak directly to the press suggests that, no matter what leadership at KDADS says, the intent of this policy is to ensure that employees regardless of rank are not free to talk to the press or legislators," she said.
Lawmakers of both parties have objected to the policy, which was first reported by the Star last week. The Kansas Organization of State Employees, the union that represents state workers, said restricting employees from talking to lawmakers would violate the state's whistleblower law.
Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican, called Saturday for the ouster of KDADS Secretary Tim Keck on Twitter. Keck has said he was unaware of the memo until this week.
"Probably didn't want them to comment about admin bullying employees," Claeys tweeted about KDADS' decision to restrict Rein from doing a phone interview. "Secretary should be fired."
The controversy over the document came the same week a Wyandotte County judge said he would issue a contempt order against hospital officials for failing to provide medical records as part of an ongoing murder case. Larned is a psychiatric facility that treats patients with severe mental illness.
And the memo — adding legislators to a policy that already cautioned against talking to the press — was issued the same week as an investigation by the Star showed secrecy is pervasive in Kansas government.
De Rocha, who was on vacation when the Star reported on the memo, said in a series of emails Thursday and Friday she had no role in adding the reference to lawmakers to the policies on external communications.
"Just got back to find myself a villain ... I knew nothing about the one (document) at Larned, nor was I asked to sign off on it," she said Thursday morning.
De Rocha provided a copy of the agency's media policy, which includes restrictions on employees talking to the press but does not mention lawmakers.
"This is what was sent to the supers of all the hospitals to send to staff. I update the policy if needed and send around a couple of times a year to agency and hospital staff," she said.
De Rocha said that an updated version of the agency's policy was distributed to Larned employees Thursday, striking the references to lawmakers.
"Bill Rein added that language," she said in a Friday email. "His intent was to ensure that the hospital's and the agency's legislative and policy priorities are accurately conveyed to legislators. It was not intended as an attempt to suppress individuals' personal communications with legislators. Simply put, employees have every right to speak for themselves, but may not speak for the hospital or the agency unless authorized to do so."
Asked why Rein did not run his changes by the central office before distributing to employees, de Rocha said, "I do not know the answer to this question, but agency policy was not followed in this instance. I can only assume it was an oversight."
An employee of the state's other psychiatric facility, in Osawatomie, said that while employees at that hospital have not received a formal memo restricting conversations with lawmakers they have been told by supervisors to refrain from talking to legislators.
The Osawatomie State Hospital employee, who spoke on a condition of anonymity because of the agency's restrictions, said in an email that "in many past instances, we have been chastened for communicating with legislature — being informed 'Topeka has no business knowing what is going on here.' "
De Rocha said she did not know why supervisors at Osawatomie would tell staff not to speak with lawmakers.
"Central office has never addressed staff talking to lawmakers in any way, shape or form. That would be inappropriate. ... I do not know what their supervisors are telling them," she said Thursday afternoon. "I plan to send around the policy I sent you this morning as their official instructions."
Both hospitals have suffered from understaffing in recent years that has raised safety concerns. Federal officials revoked Osawatomie's Medicare certification in 2015 in the wake of an alleged rape at the facility, which has cost the state $1 million a month in federal aid.
Tana Clark, who worked as a social worker at Larned for 22 years before retiring last year, said employees have faced pressure to stay silent about problems in the state hospital for several years, including before the current administration took office. She recalled a supervisor telling her seven years ago that "we're a family and we need to keep this in the family."