February 9, 2014

Ten months and $5,000 after it started trying to get records from the state attorney general’s office on the amount of money Kansas is receiving in tobacco settlement money, Kansas Action for Children said it still hasn’t received the information it seeks.

The nonprofit agency filed a request in May for information related to a settlement with tobacco companies that funnels millions of dollars into early childhood programs.

Major tobacco companies sued dozens of states, arguing they had not kept their end of the settlement – including assessing fees against smaller tobacco companies to prevent a competitive disadvantage.

Kansas and other states settled that suit last year. Terms of the deal could affect how much money continues to flow from the original “master settlement agreement.”

“Most parts” of the accounting documents outlining how much Kansas is estimated to receive each year are “made confidential by court order,” Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office said.

But that information is of clear public interest and critical to helping lawmakers and the Kansas Children’s Cabinet plan for the future of the Kansas Endowment for Youth and the Children’s Initiative Fund, said Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children.

“These are questions they really should have been forthcoming about,” Cotsoradis said. “It’s a public settlement.”

Cotsoradis said her group filed an open records request to get a better idea of the estimated payments, but that effort has been largely stymied. She said in a blog post that the process of securing open records is “not free,” “not easy” and can be hampered by significant delays.

“This process underscores the challenges any organization or private citizen will face if they attempt to exercise their right to access documents that should be readily available to the public,” Cotsoradis wrote.

Most of the money her group has spent to obtain the documents was for the services of Topeka attorney Mike Merriam, an authority on Kansas’ open meetings and open records laws.

Now in its fifth version, the group’s open records request remains pending in Shawnee County District Court.

Schmidt’s office has provided hundreds of pages of PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ accounting documents, but many of them are heavily redacted. On one page, Schmidt’s office chose to redact an email address of PriceWaterhouseCoopers employee Ida Thompson that is available online.

A spokesman for Schmidt’s office said he couldn’t speak on pending litigation.

In a letter to the chair of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet, though, Schmidt’s office said claims it has withheld information are “not true.”

“To the contrary, my office has made publicly available more information about this dispute, and now its likely resolution, than any previous administration,” Schmidt wrote.

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