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Home Kansas Sunday Reader: Ethics fines; Meat packers & COVID-19

Sunday Reader: Ethics fines; Meat packers & COVID-19

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Photo credit: Tyler Silvest

Good morning everyone:

What a week, starting with a lawmaker’s drunk-driving plea, the loss of a respected moderate Republican lawmaker and emotional hearings about vaccine mandates plus a rally outside the Capitol. It’s been very busy, and we’re worn out. Let’s move on to the significant stories we published last week and other stories you may have missed but need to know…

  • The head of a PAC campaigning for candidates who oppose critical race theory had some choice words for his critics.
  • A proposed federal vaccine mandate could potentially apply to the state’s regional universities and community colleges.
  • Attorney General Derek Schmidt joined a lawsuit challenging a federal vaccine mandate for federal contactors.
  • A top legislative leader linked critical race theory to depression in students in what could be a preview of how the debate on CRT will play out next year.
  • A national labor union criticized one of its members for comparing the Holocaust to health care mandates during a legislative hearing.
  • A lot of tears were shed last week on the passing of Republican Rep. Russ Jennings after a short bout with cancer.
  • A former magistrate faces discipline for sharing nude photos of himself on a swingers website, but the state Supreme Court raised serious concerns about how far it can go to regulate the private lives of the judiciary.
  • The Kansas Supreme Court examined the nuances of the state’s new emergency management law and whether a Johnson County judge went too far when he threw it out because he found it was unconstitutional.
  • Sen. Gene Suellentrop avoided a felony conviction and pleaded no contest to driving under the influence and reckless driving.
  • The Labor Department has banned a state lawmaker from its property.
  • A second round of redistricting hearings is coming up on Thanksgiving week.

Former lawmaker fined

The state Ethics Commission last week fined former state Rep. Eileen Horn of Lawrence $125 for accepting campaign contributions during the legislative session from someone other than an individual.

Testimony indicated that Horn had accepted two contributions — $100 each — in January 2018 in violation of a law that bars lawmakers from accepting contributions from lobbyists or political committees from Jan. 1 through the adjournment of the Legislature.

Horn had only been in the Legislature for four months at the time she was given the contributions.

Horn reported the contributions to the Ethics Commission when she received them, asking for counsel about how they should be handled.

She later notified the commission that she held onto the checks until July 2018, when she deposited them at the advice of a lobbyist and more senior legislators.

Eileen Horn

Ethics officials credited Horn as someone who was conscientious about ethics issues, commonly contacting the office for advice.

“This isn’t someone who lost our number,” said Mark Skoglund, the Ethics Commission’s executive director. “This is someone who contacted us regularly.”

He also noted that the violation was self reported and that the amount of money in question was relatively small.

The Ethics Commission doesn’t typically fine for this type of violation, but in this case there was concern that Horn didn’t return the checks immediately.

Skoglund noted that Horn held onto the checks, although she was advised that they had to be returned.

“This is a problematic circumstance for me,” he said.

“There are a number of mitigating circumstances that we should be considering in addition to that one significant aggravating circumstance.”

Horn, who didn’t run for reelection in 2020, appeared before the commission.

“I’m disappointed in my naivete as a new legislator that I didn’t handle this correctly,” Horn told the commission.

The fine increases to $250 if it’s not paid within 30 days.

***

The Ethic Commission last week fined a former Democratic House candidate $5,000 for failing to file an amended campaign finance report requested by the agency.

The commission levied the fine against Jeffrey Zamrzla, who ran unsuccessfully last year against Republican state Rep. Steven Howe in House District 71.

Ethics officials wanted the report amended to account for a discrepancy between a report filed on Jan. 10, 2021, and the October 2020 report.

The Jan. 10 report showed Zamrzla’s account without a beginning balance, although the report immediately prior in October showed him with an ending balance of about $3,600.

There were three other technical issues that needed to be resolved, as well.

Zamrzla, who now lives in Michigan, didn’t appear at his hearing last week, although he had been in contact with ethics officials.

Mark Skoglund, the Ethics Commission’s executive director, said Zamrzla had indicated that he had been hospitalized three times and lived on disability.

“I am sorry my life is interfering with the Republican agenda in Kansas,” according to an email from Zamrzla that Skoglund read to the commission.

“That said, I filled out every form to the best of my ability and moved on with my life. Perhaps, it’s time Kansas should too.”

Skoglund said it wasn’t clear why Zamrzla didn’t clean up what appeared to be a “fairly simple amendment.”

The penalty will be reduced to $750 if it’s paid within 30 days.

Meatpacking and COVID

A new congressional report out last week revealed there were many more COVID-19 infections and deaths at meatpacking plants than previously believed.

The report — done by the majority staff for the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis — was based on documents from five of the country’s largest meatpacking companies, including Tyson Foods, Cargill, National Beef Packing and Smithfield Foods.

Several of those companies have a presence in Kansas.

The report found that there were at least 59,000 meatpacking workers infected with the coronavirus during the first year of the pandemic at those five companies.

The committee compared that number to the 22,700 infections previously estimated by the Food and Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit news organization that covers food, agriculture and environmental health.

At least 269 meatpacking workers lost their lives to COVID-19 between March 1, 2020, and February 2021 — compared to the 88 deaths that had been previously estimated by the news outlet for the five companies examined.

The report broke down deaths and infections at each company:

Tyson: 29,462 employee infections, 151 employee deaths.
JBS USA Food Company: 12,859 employee infections, 62 employee deaths.
Smithfield Foods: 9,666 employee infections, 25 employee deaths.
Cargill: 4,690 employee infections, 25 employee deaths.
National Beef: 2,470 employee infections, six employee deaths.

The report showed that certain meatpacking plants had particularly high rates of coronavirus infections during the first year of the pandemic.

For instance, 54.1% of the workforce at JBS’ Hyrum, Utah, plant contracted the coronavirus between March 2020 and February 2021.

Meanwhile, 49.8% of the workforce at Tyson’s Amarillo, Texas, plant contracted the coronavirus in that period.

And 44.2% of the workforce at National Beef’s Tama, Iowa, plant came down with the coronavirus between April 2020 and February 2021.

Here’s last week’s news coverage from The Associated Press.

Austin campaign change

Kansas Treasurer candidate Michael Austin last week hired a new general campaign consultant as Tony Bergida stepped down from that position.

Austin has hired Jake Silverman, pesident of Olympus Political Consulting, as his new general campaign consultant.

Silverman and his firm, which which was formed in 2018, have had a Missouri focus.

Jake Silverman

Silverman worked as the political director for Catherine Hanaway in her unsucessful primary campaign for Missouri governor in 2016.

He also worked as the political director for now Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt when he sucessfully ran for state treasurer in the general election campaign of 2016.

“Tony has been a true asset to my campaign and I will forever be grateful. He is not only a great person but has a solid understanding of Kansas politics and campaigns,” Austin said in a statement.

“I understand that he has to do what is best for him and his family, and I have the utmost respect for that. I wish him the best of luck,” he said.

Bergida said he will continue to support Austin.

“I’m grateful for the time I’ve had working with everyone on the campaign and will continue to support Michael’s effort to take back the treasurer’s office for the people of Kansas,” Bergida said in a statement.

Hearing roundup

A special legislative committee ended two days of hearings Saturday as it listened to public comment on how lawmakers should respond to any COVID-related health mandates coming from the federal government. On Saturday, there was a protest outside the Capitol protesting health mandates. Here’s a roundup of the coverage from Saturday from The Associated Press, The Kansas City Star and the Capital-Journal.

Pompeo backs Moran

Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week backed U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran in his bid for reeelction next year.

“Sen. Jerry Moran always puts Kansas first, and we need him in the Senate in order to save the American Dream, as we know it, for future generations.

Mike Pompeo

“I’m proud to support Jerry for re-election, and I encourage my fellow Kansans to send him back to the Senate to continue fighting for our country.”

Moran, who is very well financed, could face former Unified Governent Mayor Mark Holland next year.

Holland, a Democrat, has already announced his Senate candidacy although it’s unknown whether he might have primary opposition.

Mann starts lining more Democrat support

Democratic Attorney General candidate Chris Mann is starting to nail the support down that seems to indicate that he is the candidate that the party is supporting next year,

Mann, Lawrence trial lawyer who worked as a police officer, recently gained the backing of former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Barbara Bollier.

Barbara Bollier

“I’m supporting @chrismannks for attorney general – a former police officer and prosecutor who will focus on public safety, not politics,” Bollier tweeted to her nearly 100,000 followers.

“In 2022, we need to pull together to defend our state and our rights from the likes of Kris Kobach,” she tweeted.

Another sign that Mann has establishment Democratic support is that Ashley All handled the candidate’s communications pieces when he announced his candidacy.

All has been around state Democratic politics for a while, most recently working as a senior adviser on Bollier’s U.S. Senate campaign and as communications director for Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

Kelly & police memorial

Republicans are criticizing Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly for missing a recent ceremony honoring fallen law enforcement to attend an event held by national Democratic governors.

“Just when you think it can’t get any worse: Gov. Laura Kelly got caught skipping the annual Kansas Law Enforcement Memorial this month to rub elbows with national Democrats in New Mexico,” Kansas Republican Party Executive Director Shannon Golden wrote in a fundraising email last week.

“As the daughter of a police officer, it is insulting that our governor thinks joining Super PAC donors is more important than paying tribute to our fallen officers,” Golden wrote.

“Each day our men and women in blue work to keep our communities safe, the least Laura Kelly can do is show up,” she wrote.

Kelly’s office told WIBW Television that the governor backed pay increases for state law enforcement officers and signed legislation increasing benefits for families of fallen first responders.

“I think if you ask anybody on the street how I have behaved as a governor toward law enforcement, they would let you know that I am a good friend of law enforcement, and I value and respect the work that they do every single day,” Kelly told WIBW.

The law enforcement ceremony was held Oct. 8 at the Capitol.

Kelly had attended an event held by the Democratic Governors Association in New Mexico, which the governor described as a policy meeting, not a political event.

Here’s the complete coverage from WIBW.

Sierra Club urges Evergy to close coal plants

Arguing that Evergy is trailing other utilities in its plans for closing coal plants, the Sierra Club last week issued a report calling for the company to close two of its facilities before the end of the decade.

The Sierra Club is urging Evergy to close its Jeffrey and La Cygne coal plants by 2030 and replace them with a clean energy portfolio that includes solar and wind power.

They noted that at the end of 2020, about half the coal capacity across the United States had been put to bed or was scheduled to be retired by the end of the decade.

In Kansas, only 11% of coal capacity is set to be retired by 2030 or sooner, the Sierra Club said in its report.

The Sierra Club says the early retirements would save ratepayers between $333 million and $869 million based on how quickly they’re closed.

The report “provides a path for the utility to quickly reduce its carbon emissions while stimulating the regional economy through clean energy portfolio investments that deliver reliable and affordable energy for its customers,” said Ty Gorman, Kansas campaign representative for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

Evergy spokesman Andrew Baker called the Sierra Club’s report “categorically false.”

“What they’re suggesting can’t be done, and overall their study is really flawed,” Baker said in an interview.

“We have an obligation to our customers to provide the lowest cost of service that also meets reliability and sustainability requirements,” Baker said.

Earlier this year, Evergy revealed that it planned to reduce its carbon emissions by 70% by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2045.

The company initially announced that it would close its Lawrence coal-fired plant by the end of 2023 and speed up the closing of Unit 3 of the Jeffrey Energy Center near St. Marys. The unit was expected to close in 2039 and is now scheduled to close in 2030.

The utility also planned to close one unit at its La Cygne plant in 2032 and a second by 2039. The other two coal units at Jeffrey would be closed by 2039.

It was later revealed last month that Evergy planned to partially keep one of the units open in Lawrence and run it on natural gas to ensure reliability.

Baker said that since 2005, Evergy had added more than 4,400 megawatts of renewables and retired 2,400 megawatts of fossil-fuel generated power.

Of its peer utilities in the Midwest, he said, only one has made more progress toward an emission-free energy mix.

NBAF construction delayed

Work on the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan — sometimes called NBAF — is not expected to be completed until next spring after it was hoped the project would be completed by this month.

Homeland Security officials told the Manhattan Mercury technology upgrades and equipment installation is taking longer than expected.

Once it’s completed, researchers at the facility will study diseases that can be spread from animals to humans.

Here’s the coverage from the Manhattan Mercury and The Associated Press.

Police bias allegations

An Associated Press analysis revealed that law enforcement agencies across Kansas field hundreds of complaints about biased policing, but they don’t lead to much action. The AP only found two instances where there were allegations of biased policing that led to any action against an officer. The AP cited a 2019 case in Wichita where two officers had been charged with using racial epithets during an investigation. One officer was cleared and another resigned before they were fired.

Wrongful contempt conviction payout

Kansas will pay almost $134,000 to settle a wrongful contempt conviction against a man who refused to testify against defendants in a Reno County murder case.

The state will pay Jose Delacruz $123,000 in compensation plus $10,700 in attorney fees after he was sentenced to 108 months in prison after he refused a judge’s order to testify against a defendant in the murder case.

He can participate in the state medical insurance plan in 2021-22 as well as the college tuition waiver.

Delacruz had been found guilty of aggravated robbery but acquitted of murder in the 2010 beating death of Joshua Haines.

Delacruz was sentenced to 83 months on the aggravated robbery charge and 108 months to be served consecutively on the contempt conviction.

He served 631 days of the 108-month sentence for the contempt conviction.

A judge ordered Delacruz to testify in the case, but he opted not to on the advice of his lawyer.

Delacruz maintained from the outset that he had a valid Fifth Amendment right to refuse to testify because the immunity granted to him didn’t coincide with his constitutional right against self-incrimination.

Delacruz appealed the case, and his sentence was upheld by the Kansas Court of Appeals. The state Supreme Court reversed the conviction in 2018.

“A court cannot lawfully compel a witness to testify based upon the state’s grant of mere use immunity,” the Kansas Supreme Court ruled.

“If a court holds a witness in contempt for invoking his or her right against self-incrimination, when that witness has not been granted immunity that is coextensive with the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, the order of contempt must be reversed and the sanction imposed must be vacated.”

Kelsey Smith Act returns

The state congressional delegation last week introduced legislation that would give authorities the ability to locate individuals facing danger in an emergency.

The legislation would require cellphone providers to turn over geographic location information to law enforcement officers in emergency situations.

Kelsey Smith

The bill is named after Kelsey Smith, the young woman who was murdered after she was abducted leaving an Overland Park Target store in 2007.

Four days after she disappeared, authorities were able to locate Kelsey’s body after her wireless provider released call information from her cellphone.

With the legislation, cellphone providers must give the information to law enforcement as fast as possible to ensure they can locate victims in an emergency or life-threatening situation.

Her parents, Greg and Missy Smith, have been pushing for the legislation for years.

“The tragic abduction and murder of Kelsey Smith is heartbreaking and should never happen again,” Republican Congressman Jake LaTurner said in a statement.

The legislation “would ensure law enforcement officers have the resources they need from cellphone providers to locate missing or abducted children,” LaTurner said.

“The fear of legal liability should never stand in the way of rescuing a child from a life-threatening situation.”

Democratic Congresswoman Sharice Davids, another sponsor of the legislation, echoed LaTurner.

“The tragic loss of Kelsey Smith is still felt in our community, and my heart goes out to her family,” Davids said in a statement.

“This bill honors her legacy by ensuring that law enforcement have the tools to locate and rescue children in emergency situations,” Davids said.

Five years ago, the bill failed to pass in the U.S. House on a 229-158 vote.

The bill required support from two-thirds of the chamber for passage because of rules that were invoked to speed up a vote on the bill.

Civil liberties groups had opposed the legislation for fear that it would lead to expanded government surveillance.

Statehouse protest charges

Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay said last week he was dropping charges against two women who were reportedly among the protesters who demonstrated in the Capitol for Medicaid expansion in March 2020.

The Topeka Capital-Journal reported that Kagay was dropping misdemeanor charges against Christina Pass and Thea Perry, who were each charged in connection with the demonstration in which protesters blocked access to the Senate.

Prosecutors dismissed the charges after they were unable to obtain video evidence that they needed to make their case, the newspaper reported. Kagay stressed that the charges can still be refiled.

There are still seven other protesters awaiting trial, with the first set for Monday.

In March 2020, about 50 people protested at the statehouse for about three hours, with Capitol Police removing 23 who had blocked entrance to the Senate chamber.