The Topeka Capital-Journal recently made conflict-of-interest allegations against Kansas Senator Julia Lynn (R-Olathe) centered largely on Lynn’s vote against a proposed audit of actions by former Commerce Secretary Antonio Soave. The paper frames Senator Lynn as attempting to cover up conflict-of-interest with her employer, Allied Global Services.
The Capital-Journal itself admits that Senator Lynn properly disclosed her employment on annual statements of substantial interest, and audio of the meeting where the audit was discussed proves the discussion went down very differently from what the Topeka Capital-Journal alleges.
The audio also reflects no discussion or accusation of conflict of interest by any party in the meeting, even though it’s widely known among legislators that Senator Lynn worked for Allied.
What Really Happened
In January 2018, the Legislative Post Audit Committee was asked to vote on two proposed audits pertaining to expenses charged and contracts awarded by former Kansas Secretary of State Antonio Soave. Lynn opposed the audit, not on grounds to cover up contracts, but that Soave had already been terminated and the audit was not looking to address statutory issues that would bring about change to how contracts are awarded.
“I would suggest if there are questions about how the department manages its financial contracts with consults and so forth then that should be studied as part of the statute and if something needs to be changed in statute then according to those processes then that should be pursued.” Lynn continued, “When we have the information about what is in statute regulating those processes. So I move that we take this audit off the table.”
Senator Anthony Hensley (D-Topeka) proposed the audits but then-State Senator, now Governor, Laura Kelly, was also on the committee and participated in the discussion.
An exchange between Lynn and now-Governor Kelly illustrates just what happened to the contracts awarded under Soave:
Laura Kelly: My concern would focus particularly on bullet two on the sample of contracts awarded by the former secretary. Have those all been voided or are they still active?
Julia Lynn: Yes, they’ve been voided.
Kelly: So there is no money going out? How do we know that?
Lynn: Thank you for bringing that up. I should have mentioned that. All of those contracts have been terminated. None of the staff that was hired during his tenure are still there and there is no money flowing from those contracts they have been terminated.
Kelly: Do we know how much money did go out?
Lynn: I did not ask that question. I’m sorry.
From then on, Representatives Dan Hawkins (R- Wichita), John Barker, (R-Abilene) and Don Schroeder (R-Hesston) all spoke up in succession in favor of handing the matter over to the state attorney general in lieu of an audit. Even Rep. Ed Trimmer, who cast his vote with Kelly and Hensley, supported referring the matter to the Attorney General. Schroeder made clear his belief that the issue was with one person and not the department.
“I have been in contact with Commerce and as Senator Lynn said the contracts have been voided. I don’t think there is any involvement from the department itself on any of these issues. I am confident of that. Having said that, I think certainly some type of investigation is in order. I’m taking the side that it would probably be more appropriate for the attorney general to look into these issues because they are potentially criminal issues,” said Schroeder.
The Cap Journal said of Lynn “She convinced the GOP majority on the joint House and Senate committee to block examination of Soave.”
However, other than the exchange with Kelly, the only other time Lynn spoke was as a concession to Kelly, who was in favor of the Commerce Department audit. Lynn offered to back an audit of all department contracts as a means to examine how contracts are awarded in the state and potentially change the laws accordingly.
“It might be best to start at the beginning. I am not familiar with those contracts, the language that governs these agency contracts from agency to agency. But if we do commerce then we should probably do every agency. Because they are all governed by the same contracts,” said Lynn.
The audio shows it was Senator Hensley who spiked the proposal of wider agency audits and wanting only to focus on contracts awarded by Soave.
“This is a limited scope audit that I think hones in on some two very important questions. That could lead, you know, the legislature into changing applicable laws to improve our oversight of state agencies,” said Hensley.
In the end, the vote was 5-3 against an audit of Soave’s expense and the contracts he awarded and the matter of Soave contracts was referred to the Attorney Generals office. A criminal investigation was opened, but no criminal charges have ever been filed. Soave was fired in 2017 by then-Governor Sam Brownback over state contracts awarded to friends and associates. Soave was also found to have violated data policy in transferring state files to the company of which he is CEO.
Media coverage of Soave’s contract awards to friends and business partners list several names, but Allied was not among those mentioned.
Selective transparency of the Kelly administration
While accusing Senator Lynn of possible transparency issues, the Kelly administration still won’t say whether it’s $800,000 consulting agreement with McKinsey and Company was put out for competitive bid as Governor Kelly says should happen. The Sentinel continues to fight for the information through Open Records requests.
The Sentinel submitted a separate Open Records request for all contracts terminated or not renewed by the Kelly administration.
The Kelly administration did, however, finally respond to one request for the names of people appointed to an economic development steering committee that was supposed to be comprised of business leaders and economic development professionals. Instead, most of the appointees work for Commerce Secretary David Toland and no business people were included.
Media on the attack
Part 2 of The Sentinel’s investigation examines more media bias.