With little fanfare, Kansas Governor Laura Kelly’s administration forced out Dr. Lee Norman, who had been both the state public health officer and the head of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, after months of clashes with Kelly’s Chief of Staff Will Lawrence. But emails obtained in an Open Records request show Norman was forced out because he wouldn’t ‘stay in his lane’ and avoid discussing issues that could be politically damaging to Kelly,
The Kansas Reflector reports that the clashes began in June of 2021, and the outlet had filed a Kansas Open Records Request for emails between Lawrence and Norman on July 28.
That request was fulfilled on Nov. 18, just one hour before Norman’s departure was announced with no explanation.
Norman told WIBW TV in Topeka that he was essentially fired.
“I did not step down voluntarily. I was asked to step down,” Norman told 13 NEWS in an interview Tuesday. “I feel really good about what we’ve accomplished as a state, as an agency, myself personally. I’m not having a hard time sleeping at night.”
Political considerations over public health issues
The emails show that Lawrence ordered Norman to stop speaking publicly in early June, when the governor’s office was trying to renew the COVID-19 emergency declaration.
According to the Wichita Eagle, during a June 9 daily briefing hosted by the University of Kansas Health System, Norman said the pandemic would not end if the legislature declined to renew the state of emergency.
“Our Legislature has decided to allow our state emergency declaration to expire on the 15th” of June, Norman said. “So that means we will be gradually standing down our emergency operations center. I do not want people to come away with the idea that means that because the emergency declaration for the state of Kansas is going away that somehow magically the virus is going away. We still have the same battle, we still have the same need for vaccinations.”
Lawrence apparently took exception and told Norman to “stay in your lane and decline to answer policy questions.”
“I have no choice at this point but to request that you do not participate in any further KU morning updates or other media inquiries without them (being) cleared with clear talking points and approved messaging from my office,” Lawrence said.
Norman told Lawrence he was concerned about the way information was being presented to the public.
“I think our communications to the public are often too late and incomplete for fear of political ramifications, and I think yesterday’s conversation about the emergency declaration illustrates it perfectly,” Norman said in the emails obtained by the outlet. “By not saying anything publicly about what this really means … people flounder around and look for other, less-reliable sources. And somebody will fill in the information gap with errant information, believe me.”
Just a few weeks later, Norman again raised concerns about a news release issued by the governor alerting Kansans about the “delta variant” ahead of the July 4 holiday.
“Maybe I’m just paranoid these days,” Norman wrote to Lawrence in the emails obtained by the Reflector, “but I find it interesting that no real clinicians or public health professionals were involved with this, or the interviews to follow.”
Lawrence said multiple KDHE employees were consulted — apparently without Norman’s knowledge — as well as Dr. Ximinea Garcia, the governor’s “vaccine equity advisor” and now acting state health officer — and Marci Nielsen (who has also announced her departure), Kelly’s chief COVID-19 policy advisor; who is not a physician.
“The origin of my concern is that neither Marci nor Dr. Garcia … represent KHDE in terms of scientific, clinical, or public health content and expertise, and it worries me that they would be considered as such,” Norman said.
Kansas State Senator Richard Hilderbrand, (R-Baxter Springs), Chair of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, was concerned as well.
“I think it shows grave concern,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. “We hear all the time about why is COVID-19 politicized, and this is why and how.”
Hilderbrand said it lends new urgency to look at Chapter 65 of the Kansas Statutes and “what authority we have given an unelected bureaucrat,” to do such things as shut down churches or schools.
“We need to make sure mandates aren’t used for political pandering,” Hilderbrand said.
Kelly has said she’ll nominate a new KDHE head in the next few weeks, but that appointee may have a rough road.
“In light of the information we have seen in the Reflector, any appointee in that position is going to have some concern,” Hilderbrand said. “Are they going to be there to do what is best for public health? Or are they going to be puppets for the puppet master?”