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No one knows a city’s secrets, patterns or stories as intimately as its residents. As a Wichitan, what can you do if your gut tells you something’s wrong? Are you protected from sharing potentially sensitive information? How do you even start checking things out?
We’ve crafted a short guide on how you can be a watchdog, too.
Why should I share what I suspect or know?
We hope to empower and educate our readers to know the issues and when something feels awry. Every person has the right to report wrongdoing.
According to the National Whistleblower Center, a whistleblower is “someone who reports waste, fraud, abuse, corruption or dangers to public health and safety.”
People who take the brave step of coming forward have an incredible impact:
- 43% of cases documented in a 2020 study on occupational fraud and abuse from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners were reported by tips.
- A 2020 report by the federal Department of Justice shows the U.S. recovered over $3 billion in settlements and judgments in cases of fraud or false claims against the government for the fiscal year ending September 2019. Of the $3 billion recovered, over 72% was reclaimed in cases initiated by whistleblowers under the False Claims Act.
- A major audit firm found that whistleblowers exposed 43% of the fraud on private corporations, while professional auditors only caught 19%.
Kansas also has its own Whistleblower Act prohibiting state government from taking any disciplinary action against employees who file whistleblower lawsuits against them.
While the state doesn’t have an individual statute protecting non-government employees from retaliation as a result of whistleblowing, there are protections at the federal level — such as the whistleblower statute in the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which provides protections for employees of publicly-traded companies.
Potential whistleblowers should vet the links and laws we mention and consult an attorney about coming forward with information. While there are laws meant to protect potential whistleblowers, there are risks involved.
What information already exists for me to look into?
It’s Kansas policy for all public records to be available for request or inspection, regardless of whether they are on paper or computerized.
“If you want to know what the government is up to other than attending open meetings, KORA is the easiest way to get a hold of stuff,” Kautsch said of the Kansas Open Records Act.
Anyone can submit a request to a records custodian, the individual in charge of receiving and fulfilling requests. Make sure to be as specific as possible in describing what records you’re seeking.
Unfortunately, no one central agency exists for accessing all state public records. You have to directly contact a specific agency for a copy of records it keeps. Here’s a directory of all Kansas state agencies.
Our sister newsroom, The Kansas City Beacon, wrote a more detailed guide on how to file a public records request in Kansas, as well as a sample template you can email to a records custodian. Feel free to copy and paste.
You can also familiarize yourself with Kansas statutes by visiting kslegislature.org, typing in a legislator’s name and researching what bills they’re sponsoring.
Open record laws have their limits, however.
“The public’s right to access government records is not absolute. No freedom of information law in the country grants unfettered access, and KORA contains many exceptions that allow public agencies to choose not to disclose requested records under certain circumstances,” Kautsch wrote in an editorial for the Kansas Reflector.
Are there examples of how the public has helped create impactful journalism?
Yes. In May, The Lawrence Times published an eight-part series called “Who Killed Nick Rice?” The series investigated the deaths of two young men killed by police in July 1970 during a period of unrest in the city. The exact circumstances of these deaths have been analyzed for years.
A brother of one of the victims, Chris Rice, spent two years obtaining over 600 pages of records from several requests submitted to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and other public agencies. Rice provided all the records he requested to The Times to build a case that Lawrence police had obscured responsibility for Rice’s death and spurred decades of disinformation.
OK, I have my records. Now what?
If you know or suspect wrongdoing in Wichita and want to alert your community, The Wichita Beacon can help. Securely submit information through The Wichita Beacon’s Tip Line. You can also email Wichita Beacon reporters directly with a tip: Stefania (watchdog), Celia (local government) or Rafael (education).