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Kansas Republicans push forward with changes to ethics rules amid ongoing investigations


Kansas Republicans push forward with changes to ethics rules amid ongoing investigations

Mar 15, 2023 | 10:59 am ET
By Sherman Smith
Kansas Republicans push forward with changes to ethics rules amid ongoing investigations
Rep. Pat Proctor says he hopes to bring additional amendments to an ethics reform package when the House debates it on the floor. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly’s chief of staff urged Republican lawmakers Tuesday to spend more time studying proposed changes to campaign finance law before moving forward with legislation inspired by ongoing investigations.

The House Elections Committee on Tuesday amended and advanced a stripped down version of House Bill 2391, which was written by attorneys who represent a GOP political operative. The executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission warned lawmakers the revised bill still contains numerous changes that would limit his agency’s authority.

Will Lawrence, the governor’s chief of staff, appeared before the committee to say he is involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations to “find some common ground.” He recommended an interim committee study the issue between legislative sessions.

“Some further vetting would really help make sure that we make good law, that we all can understand and know the rules, follow the rules, and everyone can stay out of trouble,” Lawrence said.

Rep. Pat Proctor, a Leavenworth Republican who chairs the committee, praised Lawrence for “doing yeoman’s work on this and bringing parties together.”

The committee amended the bill to remove the more “problematic issues,” as Proctor called them. Those issues involved redefining political action committees in way that would have allowed them to avoid registering with the state and reporting their activity, as well as allowing PACs to coordinate directly with campaigns.

Republicans on the committee voted to advance the bill to the full House over objections from Mark Skoglund, executive director of the ethics commission, who flagged remaining concerns with the bill in an email sent to committee members before the hearing.

In the email, obtained by Kansas Reflector, Skoglund said the bill allows limitless contributions, makes it more difficult to subpoena witnesses or make a complaint, limits the maximum fine when someone commits multiple violations, alters the way appeals are handled, allows state party committee members to serve on the commission and creates a five-year statute of limitations for violations.

“These items were crammed into a bill that makes over 30 major statutory changes to the Campaign Finance Act and many of these items received no or nearly no analysis or discussion,” Skoglund wrote. “Authors even changed the enacting clause from the statute book to publication in the register to accelerate its enactment date; one should ask why these attorneys are so concerned about changing the law immediately rather than giving it due consideration.”

The bill was written by attorneys Josh Ney and Ryan Kriegshauser, who represent GOP political operative Jared Suhn in a legal dispute over clients with former business partner Kris Van Meteren. The ethics commission has issued subpoenas to Republican legislators and various political players, including the Kansas Chamber, as part of an investigation into alleged violations of campaign finance law.

In testimony earlier this year, Skoglund told the committee the attorneys drafted the law to protect unnamed individuals from ongoing investigations.

Among the changes that remain in place, the bill would allow contributions “in the name of another” to exceed contribution limits.

“This is not legal in any jurisdiction I am aware of and would functionally abolish all campaign finance contribution limits,” Skoglund wrote in his email to lawmakers.

The bill would still expand the use of campaign funds, including the use of funds to benefit another campaign.

“Then what is the purpose of having restrictions on the uses of campaign funds?” Skoglund said. “Donors donate to a specific person’s campaign for a specific office, not to benefit other candidates.”

Under current law, the ethics commission issues subpoenas to witnesses, who can then challenge the subpoena in district court. Under proposed changes, a judge would have to authorize every subpoena before it was issued. Skoglund said this would create a “drawn-out process” that requires the commission to file actions directly against witnesses, not just the targets of an investigation.

The proposed legislation would limit the maximum fine for multiple violations to twice the amount of a single violation.

“The limited fine authority of the commission is already insufficient to deter substantial
offenses, which are the only circumstances that would be affected by this change,” Skoglund wrote. “This kneecaps an already weak commission. This limitation only exists to cap the possible exposure for the authors’ clients and is not in this bill to create good law.”

The proposed law also changes the information judges would consider if a violation were appealed in court.

“This is specifically included in the bill so that the authors — attorneys — have increased
chance of winning cases on appeal,” Skoglund said.

During committee debate, Proctor said he anticipated amending the bill further when it appears before the full House for consideration. If the bill isn’t ready, asked Rep. Allison Hougland, an Olathe Democrat, why rush the committee to a vote?

“I think the bill, as it’s written now, is good law if we were to pass it,” Proctor said. “I just would like to have more support rather than less support.”

Rep. Brandon Woodard, a Lenexa Democrat, said the amendments were “a step in the right direction,” but there was “a lot of work left.”

“I don’t have a bingo card, but I would say this bill is not ready for prime time,” Woodard said.

Rep. Ken Collins, a Mulberry Republican, said he shared Woodard’s concerns.

“It’s good that the parties are going to be getting together,” Collins said. “However, I can’t vote in favor of the bill until that happens.”