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Kansas' Kobach accused of running a lucrative national 'sham'

Before his rise to national prominence, Kris Kobach went town to town, selling anti-immigration ordinances. The results were awful for everyone -- except him.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach in his Topeka, Kan., office, Aug. 1, 2013. (Photo by John Hanna/AP)
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach in his Topeka, Kan., office, Aug. 1, 2013. 

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) recently generated national headlines in the wake of some humiliating legal defeats, but as it turns out, the Kansas Republican's losing streak started several years ago. If you haven't seen this investigative report from the Kansas City Star and ProPublica, it's a doozy.

Kris Kobach likes to tout his work for Valley Park, Missouri. He has boasted on cable TV about crafting and defending the town's hardline anti-immigration ordinance. He discussed his "victory" there at length on his old radio show. He still lists it on his resume.But "victory" isn't the word most Valley Park residents would use to describe the results of Kobach's work. With his help, the town of 7,000 passed an ordinance in 2006 that punished employers for hiring illegal immigrants and landlords for renting to them. But after two years of litigation and nearly $300,000 in expenses, the ordinance was largely gutted. Now, it is illegal only to "knowingly" hire illegal immigrants there -- something that was already illegal under federal law. The town's attorney can't recall a single case brought under the ordinance.

Grant Young, a former mayor of Valley Park, characterized Kobach's attitude as, "Let's find a town that's got some issues or pretends to have some issues, let's drum up an immigration problem and maybe I can advance my political position, my political thinking and maybe make some money at the same time."

It was quite a scheme. Kobach, before his rise to national prominence as a far-right opponent of voting rights and illegal immigration, would go from community to community, urging local officials to pass anti-immigration ordinances. He focused his energies on "small, largely white municipalities overwhelmed by real or perceived demographic shifts," where his message fell on fertile ground.

Kobach pitched proposals that made it effectively impossible for undocumented immigrants to live or work in the area. When local officials agreed, and the ordinances faced legal challenges, Kobach would make himself available to defend the local laws in court.

The results were disastrous for everyone involved -- except Kobach. Local communities ended spending money they couldn't afford to defend bad anti-immigration laws, which they didn't really need, and which kept failing in the courts.

All the while, Kobach kept collecting lucrative legal fees from the local officials who made the mistake of listening to him in the first place. The Kansas City Star/ProPublica report highlighted a series of cities and towns that were burdened by hefty legal bills -- one Nebraska community "raised property taxes to pay for Kobach's services" -- though none of the original ordinances is still in effect.

The only real beneficiary of the scheme was Kobach, who not only collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, but who also used his crusade to build a national profile, which he parlayed into his current post in Kansas, where he's now a leading Republican gubernatorial candidate.

Bob Phelps, the former mayor of Farmers Branch, Texas, -- a town that ended up owing $7 million in legal bills -- described Kobach's efforts as "a sham." Under the circumstances, it's difficult to disagree.