House, Senate members tangle over audit of Kansas African American Affairs Commission

TOPEKA — Senate Democrats on the Kansas Legislature’s audit committee questioned justification for examination of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission’s expenditures and adherence to procedures while asserting the House Republican who requested the audit wasn’t transparent with them about his wife’s role on the commission.

The exploration by staff at Legislative Post Audit, responsible for performing audits authorized by a joint House and Senate committee, delved into whether the commission complied with legal requirements when conducting commission business and when handling its $130,000 annual budget and a $50,000 grant from the Kansas Health Foundation.

The commission was created in 1997 to liaison with the governor’s office. It has four members appointed by legislative leaders and three selected by the governor.

“This whole thing for me has just smelled wrong from the get-go,” said Sen. Ethan Corson, a member of Legislature’s audit committee. “I feel like this has just been a massive conflict of interest from the very beginning.”

Corson said Rep. Patrick Penn, who also serves on the audit committee, should have disclosed to all members of the committee that Penn’s wife, Talia Penn, had been appointed to the African American Affairs Commission. Corson said Patrick Penn endorsed the audit, Talia Penn was allowed to air her grievances to auditors, and the state representative followed this week by punctuating conclusions contained in the audit report.

Sen. Ethan Corson, a Democrat on the Legislature’s joint audit committee, said Rep. Patrick Penn’s work to devote Kansas tax dollars to a budget and procedural review of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission resulted in an alleged conflict of interest. Corson said the audit was approved without all members of the auditing committee being informed by Penn that Penn’s wife was on the commission. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

‘There were irregularities’

Penn, who represents a portion of Wichita, said any legislator could have discovered his wife’s role on the commission by looking at a public website. A least one other member of the Legislature’s audit committee, GOP Rep. Sean Tarwater, said he was aware Talia Penn served on the commission. Tarwater said Talia Penn was a source of complaints that generated interest in the audit. She was appointed by Senate President Ty Masterson in 2022.

The audit report says Penn requested the audit and defended the resulting examination. He argued it was a role of the Legislature to conduct oversight of executive branch agencies and commissions on behalf of taxpayers. Legislative auditors were given permission in February by the audit committee to devote 100 hours of staff time to a limited review of the commission.

“There were irregularities that we heard about from the community and from other commissioners even prior to my wife being appointed,” Penn said. “This is about the functionality of the commission and the roles of the officials therein.”

Sen. Mary Ware, a Democrat on the audit committee, said the audit appeared to target Stacey Knoell, the executive director and the only paid employee of the commission. She ran unsuccessfully for the Kansas Senate in 2020 and Gov. Laura Kelly announced her appointment as executive director in 2021.

“It has focused on one individual rather than a group, department, an agency, a program. It gives me pause,” Ware said. “It makes me concerned … we might unfortunately be moving from neutral fact finding to a popularity rating on individuals.”

Sen. Mary Ware, a Wichita Democrat on the Legislature’s audit committee, said an audit of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission appeared to target Stacey Knoell, the executive director since 2021. In this image, Knoell speaks at a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Auditors’ findings

The audit report indicated Knoell didn’t receive prior written authorization from the governor’s office for $4,200 in expenditures tied to the commission’s $130,000 state budget and use of a portion of the $50,000 grant. The six expenditures questioned by auditors were ultimately approved by the governor’s office, auditors said, including the largest of $1,500 to support the Kansas African American Museum.

“With regard to its expenditures, the commission’s fiscal year 2023 expenditures seemed reasonable to accomplishing its duties at a high level,” the report said.

Auditors said in the report commissioners indicated they “generally did not have sufficient oversight” of the commission’s budget.

In addition, the report said Knoell didn’t compel the commission to hold elections for chairperson or secretary in the recently completed fiscal year and didn’t operate all the commission’s seven standing committees according to bylaws.

Knoell said in response to a draft of the audit that it was the nature of the auditing process to search for deficiencies. She said the draft didn’t “reflect the amount of documentation requested and provided that demonstrates how both the commission and the executive director operate in compliance with the statute.”

The office of the governor questioned the “purpose and necessity of this audit” and disagreed with several findings. The governor’s staff said election of officers and formation of committees were a duty of the full commission. The office of the governor said selection of the executive director in May 2021 was done in consultation with the commission and followed the process relied upon by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.

In addition, the governor’s office said all expenditures reviewed by auditors “were pre-approved” despite lack of written documentation in some instances.

Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Republican on the audit committee, said she was disappointed leaders of the African American Affairs Commission weren’t present at the Capitol for public release of the audit. The subjects of legislative audits have an opportunity to review and comment in writing to drafts of audit reports. In addition, agency officials often attend audit committee meetings to speak directly to legislators on findings and recommendations.

“That is quite disappointing,” Tyson said. “I’m wondering if there are other commissions out there that may have similar issues.”

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