Topeka correspondent John Hanna had been hearing hints for weeks from Kansas Republicans that there might be something in Kris Kobach’s record that could cause trouble for the Kansas secretary of state and candidate for governor.
At first, it was just that: hints. The suggestions were so vague that Hanna set off to review the nationally known Republican’s statements of substantial interest – documents filed by Kansas officials that list such things as business dealings, stock holdings and gifts. Hanna, whose reporting sense is informed by 30 years reporting from the statehouse, found nothing. But he had the sense that this was more than run-of-the-mill election-year gossip.
So he kept digging.
Hanna pressed for detail over more than a week, and eventually a source suggested there might be something to do with a pardon. He filed a records request with the governor’s office, seeking files on any pardon requests from Kobach since Jan. 1, 2017.
Eventually a source suggested there might be something to do with a pardon.
The governor’s office released a copy of its file on a pardon request for Ryan Bader, a Kansas City-area resident and the vice president of TriStar Arms, a firearms importer. Bader had pleaded guilty to attempted robbery over a 2009 incident in which he’d temporarily taken a cell phone from a cab driver after being unable to pay the full fare for a ride home after drinking on St. Patrick’s Day. He’d initially faced an aggravated robbery charge but agreed to a plea bargain, received a light sentence and had his record expunged. He wanted a pardon so that he could buy a gun again and get the federal licenses needed to take over the family business.
Bader’s attorney for the pardon request? Kobach, who initiated the request himself in August 2017, the records showed. What’s more, Kobach did not provide a key document that the office of GOP Gov. Jeff Colyer – whom Kobach is challenging – later released: An affidavit from a police officer who said the cab driver told him Bader had threatened him against calling police with a gun to the head and that two officers found a gun fitting the cab driver’s description in Bader’s home.
The governor’s office received a copy of the affidavit from the local district attorney’s office two months after Kobach initiated the pardon request, and it became the key reason given for Colyer’s denial of the pardon request.
But there was more: A review of campaign finance records showed that TriStar had donated at least $7,000 to Kobach’s campaigns for secretary of state and governor in the past five years. The company also had helped sponsor a fundraiser Kobach had with Donald Trump Jr.
Hanna's APNewsBreak was well used by customers, including The New York Times and a post on the homepage of a member that is usually hesitant to showcase work done outside its newsroom. It also became a topic of a gubernatorial debate, with Kobach defending the pardon request.
For smart digging and use of public records that helped drive the news agenda and political conversation, Hanna wins this week’s Best of the States award.