By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog
But in Kansas, informing the public is just too much work.
That’s the argument used by Angela de Rocha, communications director for the Kansas Department for Children and Families, who denied an open records request submitted by Kansas Watchdog asking for transaction records for purchases made with public tax dollars.
KDCF annually distributes more than $100 million through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, federal program. While the program is aimed at helping struggling Kansans weather tough times, investigations in other states have shown the welfare assistance has some people living large on the taxpayer’s dime, turning up questionable purchases and ATM withdrawals everywhere from nightclubs to adult-oriented retail stores — even paying for admission to Graceland.
The question isn’t whether there is an issue in Kansas, but rather just how big is the problem? At the moment, there’s no way of knowing.
De Rocha initially redirected Kansas Watchdog to the Food and Nutrition Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But FNS officials told Kansas Watchdog they had nothing to do with TANF funds. De Rocha said she was just doing as KDCF has been instructed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which distributes TANF funds nationally.
While she acknowledged KDCF does have the requested records, they’re not going to be made public — at least for now. TANF transaction records, de Rocha explained, are intermingled with data from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly referred to as food stamps. And while TANF data is open to the public, SNAP transactions are not. Separating the two would pose “an unreasonable burden on agency resources,” de Rocha said.
But Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, isn’t buying it.
“It seems that the excuse that the request is too broad comes up a lot, where the government tells a reporter ‘well, you’re looking at such a large amount of information that it would be either too expensive to pay for the records once we got them, or just would not be worth our time to get them for you,’” Anstaett said.
“I think that when reporters are trying to gather information to keep an eye on what government is doing and how government money is being spent, that public officials have a unique responsibility to assist in that effort,” he added. “(Kansas Watchdog ) is not looking for individual identification records, they’re looking for trends and the way the money is being spent or misspent, and I think that’s a legitimate question for the government to answer.”
De Rocha defended her rejection of the open records request, and said she is working to find the proper federal agency that can supply the information.
“I don’t want you to think we’re not cooperating, it’s just an enormous amount of information, and I’m not sure who has it,” de Rocha said.
But when asked about a timeline for receiving the data, she wasn’t optimistic. “You’re dealing with the federal government and a bunch of lawyers, your guess is good as mine.”