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Regional Headlines for Thursday, September 20, 2012



Kansas Labor Secretary Resigns

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas Governor Sam Brownback says Labor Secretary Karin Brownlee has stepped down. Thursday's announcement from Brownback's office gave no indication of why Brownlee left the job she'd held since Brownback took office in January 2011. Brownback also said he has appointed Lana Gordon, a Republican House member from Topeka, to serve as interim labor secretary until the governor names a permanent successor. Gordon has served in the House since 2001 but decided not to seek re-election this year. Brownlee, also a Republican, is a former state senator. The announcement of her departure came just hours after she announced the appointment of Olathe Mayor Michael Copeland as deputy secretary starting in October to replace retiring Deputy Secretary Kathy Sparks.


Lobbyist Spending in Kansas Up Nearly 9 Percent

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A new report shows lobbyists are spending almost 9 percent more this year than last year to try to influence Kansas officials. The Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission's report says lobbyists disclosed spending nearly $709,000 through August. That's $57,000 more than they spent during the same period last year. Lobbyists have ramped up spending on newsletters and other communications designed to get people to pressure lawmakers. Such spending totaled $105,000 through August, compared to $15,000 for the same period last year. This year's biggest-spending group has been the Kansas Association of Realtors, which disclosed expenses of $152,000 on lobbying. It successfully blocked a move by Governor Sam Brownback to eliminate an income tax deduction for home mortgage interest as part of a larger plan to rewrite the state's tax code.

Kansas Ethics Commission Fines Worker in JOCO DA Office

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A woman who heads a child abuse and sex crimes unit in the Johnson County district attorney's office has been fined $500 for violating campaign finance laws. The Kansas City Star reported that the Kansas Ethics Commission levied the fine against Heather Jones on Wednesday. The fine was for sending emails suggesting ways to help a Franklin County sheriff's candidate from her district attorney's office computer. Thirteen people received the emails. Jones is a former Franklin County attorney. She told the commission she didn't send the email in her capacity as an assistant district attorney. She said she thought she was sending the emails as a private Franklin County resident. She added that she didn't know she was doing something wrong, noting that she wasn't soliciting money or votes.

Kansas Ethics Commission Could Lose Auditor to Budget Cuts

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Ethics Commission would lose one of its two auditors under proposed budget cuts that come at a time when the commission's responsibilities are growing. The possible cut stems from the state's budget department request for agency directors to put together budgets that have 10 percent less spending. The Wichita Eagle reports that Carol Williams, executive director of the commission, told commission members Wednesday the result would be fewer audits for the agency, which enforces campaign laws and regulates lobbying. The commission's proposed budget cuts about $42,000 in salaries and wages, and leaves the commission about $15,000 to pay a part-time temporary employee to help with audits. Commission auditors review reports by county and state candidates, political action committees and party committees. They also review formal complaints.


UPDATE: Gay Caucus Leader Criticizes Kansas House Democrat 

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The leader of the Kansas Democratic Party's gay caucus says a complaint he filed against a veteran Kansas House Democrat raises a legitimate question about whether she broke state ethics laws. But caucus chairman Ryon Carey also said Thursday that Rep. Jan Pauls of Hutchinson has a bad voting record that puts her more in line with Republicans. Carey's complaint says Pauls failed to publicly disclose her ownership of a rental property. The Governmental Ethics Commission plans a hearing October 24. Gay rights advocates want to oust Pauls because of her conservative votes on social issues. She sees Carey's complaint as part of that effort. She also says she didn't think she had to disclose her ownership in the rental property because it didn't produce any income.


Kansas Veterinary Board Leader's Time Off Draws Criticism

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A new report says the top administrator of the Kansas board that regulates veterinarians and their clinics took more than 120 days of unpaid time off over seven months in 2010 and 2011. The audit released Thursday says Dirk Hanson, executive director of the Board of Veterinary Examiners, also had a side job at the time. The Wichita Eagle reports the auditors acknowledged finding no evidence of fraud or serious regulatory problems during Hanson's time off. But their report said Hanson's actions increased the risks that the agency couldn't provide proper oversight. Hanson said his time off was intended to save money at a time when the board had no pending complaints or legislative action. Hanson said his time off did not endanger animal safety.

Kansas Candidates Fined for Prohibited Fundraising Postings

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Two Kansas legislative candidates who had been "friended" by lobbyists on Facebook have been fined for improperly posting announcements about fundraisers on the social media site. Kansas law bars incumbent lawmakers and candidates for the House or Senate from soliciting campaign contributions from lobbyists while the Legislature is in session. House Republican Greg Smith, of Overland Park, and House GOP candidate Becky Nioce, of Topeka, posted notices about fundraising events on their Facebook pages in late May. But the Legislature didn't formally end its session until June 1st. On Wednesday, the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission fined them both one hundred dollars. Smith and Nioce both said they didn't mean to violate the law. Smith is running for an open state Senate seat. Nioce is challenging Democratic Representative Annie Kuether.


Manhattan Teen Pleads to Killing Classmate

MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — A Manhattan teenager has avoided a first-degree murder trial by pleading no contest in last year's killing of a high school classmate. WIBW-TV reports that 16-year-old Cole Drake faced trial as an adult next week for the fatal shooting of Tyler Dowling, a 14-year-old Manhattan High School freshman. Riley County Attorney Barry Wilkerson announced Thursday that Drake pleaded no contest Wednesday evening to second-degree murder, robbery, and numerous counts of vehicle burglary. Sentencing is scheduled for October 29. Dowling was found dead in a field in April 2011. Authorities said Drake told investigators the two were out breaking into cars the night of the shooting. He said he accidentally shot Dowling once, then shot him again because he didn't want Dowling to tell anyone what he did.

Governor Names Kansas Ecotourism Committee

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has created a new committee charged with promoting ecotourism in the state. Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Secretary Robin Jennison will lead the 16-member Kansas Ecotourism Steering Committee. Brownback said Wednesday the panel's mission is to provide direction, guidance and marketing strategies to help grow the industry. Brownback's office says ecotourism combines conservation and travel to include such as activities as hiking, biking, camping, wildlife-watching and river floats. The administration says tourism overall is Kansas' third largest industry, with an economic impact of $5.4 billion. In the ecotourism niche, the state estimates that 790,000 people participated in wildlife-watching activities in 2011, spending about $208 million in related purchases.

Loss Tops $30K in Kansas Farm Equipment Theft

MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — Authorities in northeastern Kansas are investigating the theft of more than $30,000 worth of heavy farm equipment. The Pottawatomie County sheriff's office says a John Deere tractor with a front loader, an 18-foot flatbed trailer and a grass seeder disappeared from outside an equipment auction business in Manhattan. The owner says he saw the machinery parked at the business on Sunday afternoon, then noticed them missing on Monday. Pottawatomie County Sheriff Greg Riat says it appears that someone hooked the trailer to a vehicle and drove away with the machinery.


Shawnee Mission District Superintendent to Retire

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. (AP) — The superintendent of the Shawnee Mission School District has announced his retirement. The district in Johnson County said in a news release Thursday that Gene Johnson will step down this summer. With nearly 28,000 students, Shawnee Mission is the state's third-largest school district. Johnson worked in the Topeka and Seaman school districts before getting his start in Shawnee Mission in 1986 as an elementary school principal. He held several administrative posts before becoming superintendent in 2008. Johnson also has conducted audits of school districts across the United States and co-authored the book "Managing Curriculum and Assessment." Board of Education President Patty Mach described Johnson as "an outstanding professional." The board is planning a national search, with the goal of naming a new superintendent in the spring.


Kansas Regents Greenlight $47.1M Higher Ed Budget Request

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Board of Regents has approved a request to seek an additional $47.1 million in funding for higher education in 2013. Thursday's vote comes as Gov. Sam Brownback's administration is telling state agencies to prepare for tight budgets in the coming year, including requesting information on how state government would implement a 10 percent cut in spending. Regents began working on the request this summer, originally receiving a list of priorities totaling $185 million for the 32-institution system. The final list includes a 1 percent pay increase for the 18,000 employees working on university campuses. Regents say the request is realistic given projections that the state will be faced with reduced revenues as cuts in income tax take effect in January 2013.


UPDATE: AT&T Offers $100K Reward in Missouri Worker's Death 

GLADSTONE, Mo. (AP) — AT&T is offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in a fatal assault on one of the telecommunication company's technicians. Kevin M. Mashburn, an AT&T technician for 41 years, died early Wednesday after he was struck in the head during an overnight shift in the Kansas City suburb of Gladstone. Mashburn managed to pull himself into his service truck and radio for help after he was struck. Authorities found him unconscious in his truck about 3 am. He died at a hospital. The Kansas City Star reports that AT&T Missouri President John Sondag said in a statement Thursday the company is offering the reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone responsible for Mashburn's death. No arrests had been reported Thursday.


PJ-Clad Toddler Found Wandering Wichita Street 

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Police are trying to figure out how a 3-year-old boy found wandering in a southeast Wichita neighborhood before dawn managed to leave a house where he had been staying. A woman noticed the pajama-clad toddler just after 4:20 am Thursday and called police after the boy couldn't tell her his name or where he lived. Officers knocked on doors in the neighborhood but couldn't find out where he belonged. Police received a call more than four hours later about a missing boy. They learned he had been staying with an overnight care provider while his mother worked a night job. The investigation continues, but police say they don't believe it's a case of neglect. The boy's parents were contacted, and he was released from protective custody.


Ex-Exec of Kansas Health Care Business Sentenced for Tax Fraud

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The former owner of a Wichita home health care company has been ordered to pay back more than $1 million and barred from doing business with Medicare for filing a false tax return. The U.S. Attorney's office said Thursday that 68-year-old Gerard Lessard must pay about $692,000 in restitution and about $597,000 to settle a government fraud claim. He also was ordered to spend six months in a halfway house, followed by six months of in-home detention and a year of supervised release. He and his wife, Betty Lessard, owned a company called ProActive Health Care Inc. They admitted failing to report nearly $859,000 of income on their 2004 federal tax return. They pleaded guilty in June to filing the false return. Betty Lessard will be sentenced December 3.

Murder Suspect Extradited to Kansas from Colombia

OLATHE, Kan. (AP) — A man charged with killing a South Carolina doctor in suburban Kansas City is being held in the Johnson County jail after he was extradited from South America. The Kansas City Star reports that 44-year-old John Meredith Hodges, of Ladson, South Carolina was booked into the jail late Wednesday after authorities brought him back from Colombia. Hodges was being sought on a first-degree murder charge in the death of 39-year-old Franchesca Brown, a pediatrician from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Police say she was attending a medical conference in Overland Park and was last seen September 3. Her body was found September 12 in a wooded area near the conference site. A federal fugitive warrant was issued for Hodges after he flew to Colombia sometime after Brown was last seen.

Son of Woman Fused to Chair Pleads to Abuse

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. (AP) — A suburban Kansas City man has pleaded guilty to elder abuse after his 74-year-old mother was left sitting in a vinyl recliner for so long that her skin partially fused to the chair. Fifty-three-year-old James Owens, of Independence, was sentenced to a year in jail Wednesday after pleading guilty in Jackson County (Missouri) Circuit Court. Owens also admitted to a forgery charge that stemmed from cashing a Social Security check after his mother died of an apparent stroke. Police were called after Owens's mother, Carol Brown, was taken to a hospital last October and found to have a maggot infestation. Court records show Owens told a state official he left his mother in the chair for five days because he was honoring her wishes to die in her Independence home.

Rainfall Easing Drought in Certain Corn States

ST. LOUIS (AP) — A weekly tracker of the nation's worst drought in decades says parched conditions continue easing in key Midwest states as farmers step up their corn harvests. The U.S. Drought Monitor update released Thursday says recent rainfall that benefited portions of the Corn Belt came too late to help already damaged corn crops. But the moisture may plump up still-maturing soybeans. The report shows about one-fifth of the contiguous U.S. remains in the two worst categories of drought — extreme and exceptional. The swath still dealing with exceptional drop dropped by less than half of a percentage point, to 5.96 percent. The amount of Kansas still in the worst drought classification fell by 9 percentage points to 51.04 percent. Missouri and Arkansas showed improvement in the extreme or excessive drought categories.


Drought Hurts Rural Economy in 10 States

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The economy in rural parts of 10 Midwest and Western states continued to look weak in September as the drought weighed down agricultural businesses. A new survey of bankers in the region released Thursday showed that the overall economic index remained in negative territory at 48.3 in September. That was slightly better than August's 47.1 and July's 47.9, but any score below 50 on the 1-to-100 index suggests that the economy will contract in months ahead. Creighton University economist Ernie Goss says the drought is already hurting businesses linked to agriculture like ethanol and farm equipment dealers. The survey covers rural areas of Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. The confidence index was also weak in September, coming in with a score of 43. Still, that number represented an improvement over August's 39.6.

Trial Set for Canadian Man Who Picked Up Kansas Girl

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A Canadian man who was found earlier this year in Michigan with a 12-year-old Kansas girl he met on the Internet has had his trial delayed. Stewart Kenneth Cody McGill, of Bewdley, Ontario, had been scheduled for trial next week in U.S. District Court in Wichita on a charge of transporting a minor out of state to have sex. But a judge on Wednesday granted a defense request for a delay. The trial is now set for November 14. Authorities say McGill traveled in May to El Dorado to meet the girl. They were found a few days later near Potterville, Michigan. McGill's lawyer said he needed more time to prepare for trial. He also said international issues are delaying the government's recovery of evidence.

Denver Hosts Drought Conference

DENVER (AP) — Water officials are asking farmers, ranchers and other water users to share ideas for dealing with the drought. The Colorado Water Conservation Board is holding a statewide conference in Denver to share new approaches to drought preparedness. KUNC-FM in Greeley reports Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said at the conference Wednesday that climate change will likely bring more severe droughts in the future. Hickenlooper says the current drought illustrates the need for conservation and more water storage projects. He says he hopes it will lead to smarter decisions about where future development should occur. Nearly all of Colorado has been declared a crop disaster area, and the entire state has been in either a severe, extreme or exceptional drought this summer.

World Company Names Vice President of Content

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — The company that publishes the Lawrence Journal-World and other newspapers in Kansas and elsewhere has named online media veteran Mark Potts as vice president of content. The World Company announced the appointment Wednesday. Potts will begin in the job October 1st, overseeing the Journal-World's print and online news operations. Potts is 55 and will move to Lawrence from the Washington, D.C., area. He has been a journalist for The Associated Press, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Examiner and The Washington Post, where he created a prototype in 1992 of what would become the website. He has also taught journalism and worked as a digital news entrepreneur, consultant and blogger. In 2005 he co-founded the former Backfence website, which tried to build a network of hyperlocal news sites.

32-Year-Old Bound Over for Trial in Kansas Killing

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A Sedgwick County judge has ruled there is enough evidence to try a 32-year-old man in a homicide. The Wichita Eagle reported that Dustin Cheever was bound over for trial Wednesday. He is charged with second-degree murder in the May death of 49-year-old Robert Gammon. During the preliminary hearing, the victim's 23-year-old son, Shelby Gammon, testified that the shooting happened after a friend argued with Cheever about the theft of some gasoline. Shelby Gammon said that when he went outside to confront the men in his backyard, they ran away, and he chased them. He said the shooter had a gun trained on him when his father stepped in the way. The defense contends the Gammons were the aggressors, noting that police say Robert Gammon had a pellet gun.

Kansas City Zoo Breaks Ground for Penguin Exhibit

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City Zoo plans to begin demolishing buildings this week to make room for a new penguin exhibit. Officials announced Wednesday that $4.1 million in private money has been raised for the project. The Kansas City Star reports that the total project cost is about $15 million. The rest of the money will come from revenues from a sales tax approved last year by voters in Jackson and Clay counties. The exhibit will be near the zoo's entrance and feature a 100,000-gallon pool of chilled water for cold-climate penguin species. A separate, 25,000-gallon pool will have both indoor and outdoor areas for warmer-climate Humboldt penguins. Coral reef fish, schooling fish and jellyfish will swim in three other aquariums.

KC Ramps Up Demolition of Derelict Buildings

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Kansas City is taking aim at blight. The city's mayor, Sly James, climbed into the cab of an idling excavator Wednesday. Clad in a bow tie, hard hat and orange safety vest, he sent a steel claw crashing down on the roof of an abandoned house. A half-cent sales tax approved in August will produce millions of dollars to fund parks and public works improvements. The Kansas City Star reports that a side benefit is an accompanying use tax on out-of-state sales. That tax will provide the city with up to $5 million a year to get rid of the backlog of unsafe and unsightly buildings that depress neighbors' property values. The city plans a sevenfold increase from the 130 houses a year it was able to remove previously.

Sapong. Kamara Lead Sporting KC over New York, 2-0

HARRISON, N.J. (AP) — C.J. Sapong and Kei Kamara scored first-half goals and Sporting KC won the battle for first place in the Eastern Conference and extended its unbeaten streak to seven games with a 2-0 victory over the Red Bulls on Wednesday night. Graham Zusi added his MLS-high 14th assist of the season as Sporting KC (16-7-6) opened a four-point lead over second-place Chicago and a five-point cushion over third-place New York (14-8-7) with five games left in the regular season. Sporting KC came in with the MLS' best defense (25 goals allowed) and goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen didn't have to make his first save until the 56th minute in recording his league-best 12th shutout. He finished with four saves in handing New York its first loss at Red Bull Arena in 14 games (10-1-3). The Red Bulls would have moved into first place in the conference with a win.


Class A Lexington Becomes New KC Royals Affiliate

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Royals have signed a four-year player development contract with the Lexington Legends to replace Kane County as one of their Class A affiliates. The Legends, based in Lexington, Kentucky, have been affiliated with the Astros since their inaugural season in 2001. The South Atlantic League clubs takes over for Kane County, which is now part of the Cubs system. Kansas City has had affiliates in the South Atlantic League twice before: Charleston, South Carolina from 1980-84, and Charleston, West Virginia from 1999-2000. Kane County of the Midwest League had been the Royals' affiliate for  the past two seasons.


Kansas Lawmaker Faces Ethics Complaint over Duplex

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A conservative Kansas House Democrat is facing a state ethics commission hearing over a complaint filed by the chairman of her own party's gay-rights caucus. The complaint against Representative Jan Pauls of Hutchinson alleges she improperly failed to publicly disclose her ownership of a duplex for rent. Pauls acknowledged Thursday she didn't list the duplex on statements of her substantial financial interests until July, when questions arose. But she said the property has never produced income for her or her husband. The Governmental Ethics Commission's hearing is scheduled for October 24, less than two weeks before the November 5 election. The complaint against Pauls was filed in July by Ryon Carey of Lindsborg but the ethics commission didn't make it public until Wednesday. Carey didn't return telephone messages seeking comment.

**this story has been updated. Please see above. 

AT&T Worker Dies After On-the-Job Assault in Missouri

GLADSTONE, Mo. (AP) — An AT&T technician has died after someone attacked him while he worked in a suburban Kansas City neighborhood. Kevin M. Mashburn managed to pull himself into his service truck and radio for help after he was struck in the head early Wednesday in Gladstone. A family member says a coworker told Mashburn to turn on the truck's flashing light and drive to a populated area where someone could see him. The Kansas City Star reported that Mashburn was unconscious when police and paramedics arrived. Police Captain Jeff Self says Mashburn was rushed to a hospital, where he died. Self didn't release other details about the assault. There were no immediate arrests. AT&T said in a written statement that the company was "deeply saddened by the tragic death."

**this story has been updated. Please see above. 

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