National advocacy group criticizes Kansas law firm donations to Schmidt

Schmidt spokesman denounces ‘political hit job’ by End Citizens United

By: - September 12, 2022 1:18 pm
Derek Schmidt, the Republican nominee for governor, received $46,000 in campaign donations from law firms that also received contracts from Schmidt for legal services. Some of the same law firms also donated to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Derek Schmidt, the Republican nominee for governor, received $46,000 in campaign donations from law firms that also received contracts from Schmidt for legal services. Some of the same law firms also donated to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A national government advocacy group says Republican gubernatorial candidate Derek Schmidt deserves scrutiny for taking campaign contributions from law firms who received contracts from him as attorney general.

Schmidt’s spokesman denounced the criticism as an uninformed partisan attack, pointing out that some of the same firms also donated to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s reelection campaign.

The concerns raised by End Citizens United, a group that opposes the influence of money in politics, center on 96 contracts for outside counsel that the Kansas Attorney General’s Office has awarded since Schmidt took office in 2011. Those contracts went to 49 law firms — 20 of which donated to Schmidt’s campaigns for attorney general or governor.

The donations to Schmidt add up to $46,452.63. Twelve of the same law firms also donated $24,350 to Kelly, mostly since 2018.

“When you have politicians take campaign money from firms and then turn around and give them lucrative government contracts, it makes it almost impossible for regular people to not feel that the system is rigged and that corruption is at play,” said Tina Olechowski, spokeswoman for End Citizens United. “It is why voters lose faith and trust in government and why it’s so important for officials to be transparent and not have these kinds of conflicts of interests.”

C.J. Grover, a spokesman for Schmidt’s campaign, described the complaint as “an uninformed and incorrect partisan political hit job by a left-wing organization that isn’t seriously interested in government accountability or knowing the complete set of facts.”

The Attorney General’s Office, like other state agencies, works with the governor’s Department of Administration to solicit bids for services — such as specialized legal skills for specific cases or investigations. The Department of Administration determines the qualified bidders, which are then evaluated by the Attorney General’s Office.

Grover said Schmidt was responsible for reforming the process after he took office to ensure a competitive bidding process.

“That process involves approval from the Kelly administration in addition to Schmidt’s office to award the contracts,” Grover said. “And the contracts mentioned here involve law firms that donated nearly $25,000 to Laura Kelly in the last few years alone. There is nothing here.”

In some cases, the donations from law firms followed or surrounded the awarding of a contract, according to online records for contract procurements and campaign contributions.

The law firm Frieden and Forbes, a longtime contributor to Schmidt campaigns, received a contract in September 2014 that paid up to $300 per hour for legal services. A month later, the law firm sent Schmidt a $1,000 donation. But the same law firm also gave $2,000 to Kelly for her 2018 campaign for governor.

The Polsinelli law firm received contracts in 2012 and 2014 that paid up $460 per hour for legal services. The firm subsequently gave Schmidt five $1,000 donations between 2012 and 2018. Then, in 2019, the firm gave Kelly a $1,500 donation and spent $500 on food and beverages for a Kelly campaign event.

Husch Blackwell gave Schmidt $6,000 in donations between 2013 and 2017, then received a contract in 2021 that pays $350-375 per hour for civil attorney fees. The firm also gave $3,000 to Kelly between 2019 and 2022.

Lathrop and Gage, which donated $6,600 to Schmidt between 2009 and 2018, received contracts in 2014 and 2017 that paid between $225 and $455 per hour for legal services.

“It’s these types of pay-to-play tactics that Americans across the country have had enough of and strongly reject,” Olechowski said.

Madison Andrus, spokeswoman for Kelly’s campaign, said Schmidt wasted millions of taxpayers dollars defending policies enacted under former Gov. Sam Brownback, including unconstitutional cuts to public school funding.

“This is simply another example of Derek putting politics first and Kansans last,” Andrus said. “It’s a shame that Derek continues to use Kansas taxpayers as pawns to fund his political agenda.”

State Sen. Dennis Pyle, an independent candidate for governor, said the contracts and donations make an argument for greater transparency.

“Perhaps in today’s legal environment this could be unavoidable, but I agree, the potential conflict of interest gives the appearance of pay to play and doesn’t pass the smell test,” Pyle said.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He is a lifelong Kansan.

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