Possible school election bribery case not big enough for a local Kansas prosecutor. Will the attorney general step in?

A local prosecutor won’t touch the case, but the Kansas Attorney General’s office may investigate whether a school superintendent attempted to bribe district employees into voting for a recent multimillion-dollar bond issue.

Hays USD 489 Superintendent Ron Wilson promised free lunches for staff in every building in which 100% of the employees voted early in the May 10 election, and desserts for the first building to do so. “My expectation is to buy lunch for every building in our district!” he wrote.

More ominously, Wilson wrote, “Yes, we’ll know if you vote.” And while he wrote that “we can not see how you vote,” his email clearly endorsed a vote in favor of the bond issue – which is illegal for such government employees to do in Kansas.

It’s not known whether taxpayers would have paid for the lunches that would have come in return for a vote to raise taxes. Wilson later revoked the offer when told it was illegal, though a legal source says the bribery case is still prosecutable.

Although acknowledging the illegality of the low-level felony offense of election bribery, Ellis County Attorney Robert A. Anderson Jr. oddly announced last week he would not prosecute the case. Anderson’s statement even intimates that what Wilson did was “patriotic.”

“It’s patriotic to vote, debate, challenge others, and to act when our values are questioned or challenged,” Anderson wrote. “It’s patriotic to encourage others to fulfill their civic duty to vote.”

Anderson explained in his statement he “cannot justify” prosecuting Wilson “because it will come at the cost of diverting time and resources” better spent on other alleged crimes.

Anderson’s decision angered Hays residents, who said he is turning a blind eye to election integrity, one of the topics most on Americans’ minds in the wake of the hotly contested 2020 presidential vote.

“I think with the current political climate, and the national public scrutiny of election security, it’s important that even these small violations be taken seriously,” concerned citizen Amanda Schlyer told us. “We don’t want a green light for election fraud anywhere, but in a supposed safe state like Kansas – and in conservative counties out here – we don’t want to give an indication that this is OK.

“We don’t want anybody thinking they can come out here and participate in voter fraud and they can get away with it in Ellis County.”

Schlyer said at least one county resident contacted Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office about the case, but since the Ellis County attorney hadn’t yet declined to prosecute it, the AG’s office declined to get involved.

Now that the county attorney has refused to prosecute, however, the AG’s office is free to investigate. If the Ellis County Sheriff’s Office were to share its investigative files in the matter, a confidential source tells us, the AG would likely review the case.

“I think he should,” Schlyer says. “I think it would be the right thing to do, given everything that’s going on, and an acknowledgement that voter fraud does occur in Kansas. “Even in our small rural counties, I just think we need to have people in office who are willing to take these things seriously. If they’re not, then why do we even have laws on the books about it?”

The $143.5 million school bond passed with just 53% in favor – a margin of fewer than 500 votes. A half-cent sales tax to help pay for it also passed.

In a March 30 informational video, USD 489 officials made a comprehensive case for the bond issue in an objective way – but at the end of the video Wilson says getting people to the polls will help “get the decision hopefully made in the right way.”

In addition, in his email to staff, Wilson wrote that if the video “doesn’t move you a little bit then I’m not sure you have a heartbeat.”

“So, it was pretty clear which way he was wanting people to vote,” Schlyer said. “It wasn’t just encouragement to go vote.”

Schlyer said she and others opposed the bond issue “because it’s a mega-bond that this community can’t afford, for the size of our school district. Many people are on fixed incomes that can’t afford those kinds of increases. And, just with everything going on with the economy right now and inflation and the potential food shortages worldwide – the energy prices – this is just a really bad time to heap extra costs on people.”