By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog
OSAWATOMIE — The Kansas Department for Children and Families has relented on an open records request from Kansas Watchdog, after initially denying it.
But it comes with a price — not one set by the government but rather through its third-party vendor, FIS Government Solutions.
TANF funds, distributed electronically through debit cards, are as good as cash. The goal is noble — helping struggling Kansans weather tough times. But investigations in other states have revealed questionable purchases and ATM withdrawals, from nightclubs to adult-oriented retail stores.
KDCF communications director Angela de Rocha said the vendor can, in fact, provide the transaction documents, for $406.
De Rocha declined to specifically itemize the cost, as did FIS account executive Ames Robb.
In search of more information, we reached out to Larry McGillivary, who is with the Economic and Employment Services Division of the KDCF. Fewer than 10 minutes after we clicked “send,” de Rocha e-mailed Kansas Watchdog, telling us to stop contacting staff or vendors directly.
The only explanation de Rocha gave for the cost was that “someone will have to write the code to create this report.” She also made it clear KDCF was procuring the documents despite not being required to, citing their vendor’s inability to sort data between two types of welfare benefits as an exemption.
Basically, if you can’t make the report, the law can’t force you to disclose it.
But FIS stands now at the ready to supply the data, retrieving it from “somewhere in the bowels of the vendor’s computer system,” de Rocha said.
If the data was there the entire time, wouldn’t it have been easier to just dredge-up in the first place?
The reason is simply a matter of priorities — de Rocha said the state system is set up to flag instances of outright welfare fraud, but not for recipients spending tax dollars on booze and strippers.
“You can take your Vision card into a strip joint or Disney Land or Graceland or wherever and use that to get cash,” de Rocha said. “There’s nothing we can do about that; we can’t control that.”
It’s impossible, she said, for the state to police the TANF program to prevent such abuses, compared to blatant fraudsters who sell off the welfare cards.
But Kansas open record advocates have suggested KDCF is abusing the system, too.
Randy Brown, executive director of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition, and Rich Gannon, director of Governmental Affairs for the Kansas Press Association, say they’ve never heard of a vendor determining the cost of an open records request. They also agreed that when private enterprise is allowed to dictate the terms of access to public documents, what constitutes a reasonable fee isn’t always factored into the bottom line.
“I think that a lot of folks are using these fees to make it so expensive to get the material that the requestor just drops the request,” said Gannon.
The result, said Brown, has a chilling effect on the public’s access to its own information.
The Kansas Open Records Act empowers public agencies to charge a “reasonable fee” for services necessary to dig up documents. The definition of “reasonable” is largely determined by the head of the agency.
“There’s no real policy (regarding fees),” said Brown. “The state needs to either set a policy of its own or require state agencies to set one.”
Brown said he supports SB10, a bill introduced by freshmen Sen. Jake LaTurner, R-Pittsburg, to help define fees and exclude the public from being charged for staff time, often the most expensive aspect of any open records request.
But despite the bill’s attempt to address the issue, LaTurner has had little success in gaining interest from Senate leaders.
“I understand there is a charge, however, there are individuals who argue that’s why they’re in business, is to serve the public,” Gannon said. “There are some states that don’t charge a dime, not even for photocopying.”