By Andy Marso
KHI News Service
TOPEKA, KAN. — The top Democrats on the KanCare Oversight Committee on Monday called for a separate committee to be appointed to study whether any legal or ethical boundaries were crossed when Gov. Sam Brownback's administration contracted with three managed care organizations to privatize Medicaid.
Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, and Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said the request was spurred by the months-old news of FBI agents interviewing Capitol denizens for information on allegations of corruption within the administration. The FBI has not confirmed the investigation, per agency policy, but some of those interviewed have told news outlets that the $3 billion KanCare contracts are at the center of the questions.
Ward, a former prosecutor, said that the FBI would only seek out criminal activity, while a special legislative committee also could search for ethics violations.
“When there are instances when the integrity of the legislative process, the integrity of the executive and the taxpayers’ money is at risk, a special committee is not only appropriate, it’s needed,” Ward said.
Brianna Landon, deputy communications director for the governor's office, said the governor supported the formation of the KanCare Oversight Committee on which Kelly and Ward sit, and questioned why neither raised their concerns at a meeting of that committee last month. Legislators and the general public can view the KanCare contract documents online, she noted.
"Five companies submitted bids in response to the KanCare request for proposal," Landon said. "Dozens of subject matter experts, including many career state employees, selected the three winning companies. These experts selected the three lowest bidders with the three strongest proposals. Even the losing bidders have stated the process was open and fair."
When asked why they waited until a month before the general election to request the special committee, Kelly noted that she had made a similar request for legislative inquiry when the story of the FBI interviews broke in April.
At the time, she likened it to an investigation of the Kansas Bioscience Authority ordered by Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita.
“I did call for just this sort of investigative committee and paralleled it with what had happened with the KBA," Kelly said.
Ward said Democrats waited to see how many days of interim meetings the Legislative Coordinating Council would grant to the KanCare Oversight Committee, in the hopes that the committee might have time to vet the KanCare contracting process.
“They gave us the minimum amount of days,” Ward said of the council, comprised of the Legislature's top five Republicans and top two Democrats.
A statement on Monday from Wagle, the coordinating council's vice chairwoman, made it seem unlikely she will vote for a special committee.
“This is a pathetic attempt to distort the truth and deceive voters in an election year," Wagle said. "Public records clearly show the KanCare contracts were bid in a transparent process and awarded to the lowest bidders."
The period Ward and Kelly want to investigate dates back to 2012, when United Healthcare, Amerigroup and Sunflower State Health Plan (a division of Centene) were awarded contracts to administer the state's $3 billion Medicaid program.
Gary Haulmark, a former deputy secretary in the Brownback administration, subsequently went to work for Amerigroup, while two lobbyists connected to Brownback's former chief of staff, David Kensinger, were employed by the other managed care companies. One of them, Riley Scott, is Wagle's son-in-law.
Ward said that fit a pattern of other Statehouse advocacy groups changing their representation to lobbyists with ties to the administration.
“All are representing these private companies," Ward said. "How did that happen? Were there carrots and sticks offered?”
Ward also pointed to smaller-dollar contracts handed out to fully privatize the state's child support enforcement. The recipient of the majority of those contracts was a company owned by a Brownback donor from Mississippi who privately conversed with Kensinger and a Cabinet secretary about the benefits of privatization years before the contracts were bidded out.
In addition to the bioscience authority investigation, Ward cited other recent precedent for the Legislature investigating possible corruption in other branches of government. He pointed to a 2006 special committee appointed by then-House Speaker Doug Mays, a Topeka Republican, to look into a lunch conversation Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss had with state senators while a school finance lawsuit was pending in Nuss' court.
Ward said a special committee with subpoena power could forward evidence of criminal activity to the U.S. Attorney's Office, while directing evidence of lower-level ethics violations to other bodies like the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission. He said an investigation also could be useful in determining whether state laws governing "pay-to-play" deals or influence-peddling need to be tightened.
He said it did not matter whether the investigation is launched before the November election.
“The goal is, whoever the governor is, whoever the Legislature is, people know what the rules are, and the public is confident we’re working for their interest rather than individual interests,” Ward said.