Kobach used his work in Valley Park to attract other clients, with sometimes disastrous effects on the municipalities. The towns — some with budgets in the single-digit-millions — ran up hefty legal costs after hiring him to defend similar ordinances. Farmers Branch, Texas, wound up owing $7 million in legal bills. Hazleton, Penn., took on debt to pay $1.4 million and eventually had to file for a state bailout. In Fremont, Neb., the city raised property taxes to pay for Kobach’s services. None of the towns are currently enforcing the laws he helped craft.
“This sounds a little bit to me like Harold Hill in ‘The Music Man,’ “ said Larry Dessem, a law professor at the University of Missouri who focuses on legal ethics. “Got a problem here in River City and we can solve it if you buy the band instruments from me. He is selling something that goes well beyond legal services.”
Kobach rode the attention the cases generated to political prominence, first as Kansas secretary of state, and now as a candidate for governor in the Republican primary on Aug. 7. He also earned more than $800,000 for his immigration work, paid by both towns and an advocacy group, over 13 years.
Kobach’s recent legal struggles have been widely reported. In June, a federal judge handed him a sweeping courtroom defeat, overturning a Kansas law that required proof of citizenship to register to vote. The judge went so far as to order him to attend six hours of continuing legal education after he repeatedly botched basic courtroom procedure. Another recent Kobach endeavor, a federal commission aimed at combating voter fraud, which he co-chaired, shut down after a bevy of lawsuits challenged it.
But Kobach’s failures in the courtroom date back far longer. An investigation by ProPublica and the Kansas City Star shows that the towns Kobach represented — small, largely white municipalities overwhelmed by real or perceived demographic shifts — were swayed by Kobach’s message: An ordinance would solve their problem and could be easily defended in court. Based on public records requests, filed in June with the towns that Kobach represented, this article for the first time details the costs to municipalities and the payments to Kobach for his lengthy local legal campaigns.