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Ex-Kansas City Star Columnist Rose Defends Himself Against Senator's Defamation Claim

File photos
Steve Rose, left, says the statements he attributed to Jim Denning, right, were accurate. Denning says he and Rose haven't spoken since mid-2016.

The feud between former Kansas City Star guest columnist Steve Rose and Kansas Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning has escalated.

In a statement defending the column that provoked Denning to sue The Star and Rose for defamation, Rose insisted Denning made the comments he attributed to him – if perhaps at a different time than his column suggested.

Rose said Denning made the disparaging remarks about Medicaid recipients he cited in his Jan. 26 column during an hourlong get-together the two had at Houlihan’s restaurant in Fairway, Kansas.

“That conversation took place some time ago,” Rose said in the statement emailed to reporters Tuesday. “However, I remember the words Denning spoke as if it were yesterday. I wrote a column recently about it, and Denning has now taken the heavy-handed approach of suing me over the column, attempting to divert public attention from his reasons for opposing Medicaid expansion.”

“Most important,” Rose went on to say, “does Jim Denning truly not remember a comment he made to me that one reason expansion is a bad idea is that Medicaid patients typically do not show up for their appointments? When I asked him how he knew that, he said I could check with any physician who took Medicaid patients.”

Rose’s Jan. 26 column was titled “Why hasn’t Kansas expanded Medicaid? This GOP leader has a long list of excuses.”

Kansas is one of 14 states, along with Missouri, that has not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Denning has long opposed expansion. Newly elected Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, has made it one of her priorities.

Denning’s suit against The Star and Rose alleges that Rose’s column attributed statements to him that he didn’t make and falsely implied that he had made those statements in a recent conversation with Rose. He said the column had exposed him “to public hatred, contempt and ridicule.”

Denning on Tuesday released a batch of emails between Rose and his chief of staff, Ethan Patterson, saying they painted “an even clearer picture” of what led Denning to sue The Star and Rose.

In an accompanying statement, Denning said, “It's important for the public to have a full and complete narrative of the communications taking place behind the scenes that led me to sue not only The Kansas City Star, but also former columnist Steve Rose.”

“I was stunned to read false allegations and misleading statements about Medicaid expansion in Kansas, not to mention budgetary quotes, because I hadn't been interviewed for this,” Denning added. “In fact, I haven't spoken to Steve Rose in more than two years. He knew he was in the wrong, he tried to cover it up, editor Colleen Nelson admitted the column doesn't meet The Star's own editorial standards, then Rose pointed the finger back at The Star. Everyone knew how wrong this was.”

In his written statement Tuesday, Rose said that the exact timing of Denning’s alleged statements wasn’t as important as “the fact that he made them, period.

“I don’t forget things like that, and I would never make it up,” Rose said. “I did not falsely attribute any comments by him. I stuck strictly to the truth, as I have as a columnist for nearly 50 years.”

Denning claims that Rose and he last spoke in August 2016 and that Rose’s column implied that they had spoken recently.

In a phone interview with KCUR on Tuesday, Rose said he couldn’t recall exactly when he and Denning met for drinks at Houlihan’s, but it preceded an April 2018 column in which Rose renounced his support for Denning.

“My recollection, without my calendar, is it was more recent than he (Denning) thinks it is,” Rose said.

Rose told KCUR that he didn’t take notes at the meeting because the two used to meet regularly on an informal basis. 

“Jim and I met numerous times before I wrote that column,” Rose said. “Going back to 2015, we were almost allies. I was writing flattering stuff about him as a columnist. So I never took notes with him because, honestly, they were casual conversations and I think he assumed they were off the record. That’s the reason when I wrote my column and submitted it that it did not have his name in it.”

In his original version of the column, Rose didn’t identify Denning but simply referred to him as “(my) Kansas Senate friend,” according to a sworn affidavit by Nelson, The Star’s editorial page editor, in The Star’s response to Denning’s lawsuit. (In the emails released by Denning on Tuesday, Rose told Patterson, Denning’s chief of staff, that the column originally merely referred to a “powerful senator.”) Nelson, however, told Rose that he needed to identify the senator and Rose emailed her back telling her it was Denning.

Rose resigned as an unpaid guest columnist for The Star after Patterson took him to task for the column on the day it ran. Rose said he resigned to defuse the situation, not because he lied about what Denning told him. The Star accepted his resignation two days later and, in its response to Denning’s lawsuit, said that Rose had violated the newspaper’s code of ethics.

After Patterson called him out for the column, Rose emailed him, saying, “In retrospect, I should have killed the column, but under deadline pressure, I just gave her Jim’s name.”

Rose’s email went on to say: “I want Jim to know that, despite our deep philosophical disagreements, that I had no intention of beaching a source that was not part of a formal interview.

“I am a professional journalist and have never breached a sourced that was implied off-the-record in the 50 years that I have been writing columns in this community,” he told Patterson. 

Before his weekly column for The Star, Rose was a columnist for the now-defunct Sun newspapers in Johnson County, a string of suburban weeklies founded by his parents and later owned by Rose.

Denning’s attorney, Michael Kuckelman, who just this weekend was elected chairman of the Kansas GOP, also weighed in. Referring to The Star’s aggressive response to Denning’s lawsuit, Kuckelman said he expected “a more conciliatory tone, as well as a retraction from the newspaper.”

“Just taking the article down and offering for Steve Rose to resign isn't nearly enough,” Kuckelman said in a statement. “ Clearly, The Kansas City Star caused the damage, and it needs to make this right. The Star hasn't even put out a retraction, which it should have done immediately after discovering this massive violation of editorial standards, not to mention the incredible lapse in journalistic integrity.”

The Star has asked the court to throw out Denning’s lawsuit as a violation of a 2016 law that Denning himself supported. That law, the Kansas Public Speech Protection Act, aims to protect against “meritless lawsuits that chill free speech.”

Under the law, the burden of proof would shift to Denning, who’d have 30 days to show to the court that he’s likely to prevail on his claims. If he doesn’t, the law calls for his lawsuit to be thrown out and for him to pay The Star’s legal fees.

Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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