Gov. Kelly, Kansas Republicans reach compromise on bill to overhaul state ethics watchdog

The Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s office and attorneys representing a Republican consultant under investigation for campaign finance violations came to an agreement Tuesday on an overhaul of the commission.

The compromise bill represents a major departure from the wide ranging legislation Republican lawmakers began pursuing earlier in the legislative session. The legislation was introduced after Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, said he wanted to pursue changes to the commission because he felt Mark Skoglund, the director of the state’s ethics watchdog, had taken on an “activist” role.

Masterson said Tuesday he would move the legislation forward if it reached his chamber but had not been involved in negotiations.

In the past year, Skoglund has subpoenaed several Republican officials in the course of an investigation into alleged campaign finance violations.

The original bill, which lawmakers first advanced out of the House Elections Committee last month, would have dramatically changed campaign finance law in Kansas

It loosened restrictions on giving in the name of another and prohibitions on candidates coordinating with political action committees. The bill also severely weakened the subpoena power of the agency while placing limits on fines for violations.

Rep. Pat Proctor, a Fort Leavenworth Republican who chairs the House Elections Committee, said the parts of the bill that remained were aimed at “due process” for those investigated and cited by the commission.

After staunch opposition to nearly every piece of the original bill, Skoglund told lawmakers Tuesday he could live with the latest version.

“I’m not going to come out and say that I love absolutely everything in this bill,” Skoglund said. “There is quite a bit of good law contained in many portions of the bill and the remainder represents a good compromise.”

The compromise was reached in part through Kelly’s chief of staff, Will Lawrence, mediating discussions between Skoglund and Josh Ney, an attorney representing Jared Suhn, a Republican consultant who is currently under investigation by the commission.

“We have good, reasonable law that we all agree can be implemented and I think it’s important that we move it forward,” Lawrence said. He told lawmakers that Kelly was happy an agreement had been reached.

The compromise requires the commission to apply to a district court before issuing investigative subpoenas and requires a notice of witness rights to be provided with any subpoena as well as a right to an attorney.

When the commission is determining whether to file a complaint it allows the respondent to a complaint to request an independent body, the Kansas Office of Administrative Hearings, conduct hearings to find probable cause rather than the Ethics Commission. And it places caps on how the commission can fine individuals, prohibiting the commission from fining an individual for more than three counts of the same violation in one case.

The more controversial components of the bill were removed with the promise that an interim committee would be appointed to study the issues, and campaign finance as a whole, this summer and fall.

“We want fairness, and we want clarity,” Ney said. “It doesn’t help (Skoglund) to have to enforce vague laws.”

Though the bill earned bipartisan support in the House Elections Committee Tuesday, Rep. Cindy Neighbor, a Shawnee Democrat, said that didn’t justify the manner in which the legislation was initially brought.

“While some good changes have been made I think the rhetoric when this started was over the hill and uncalled for and unfair to many that were involved,” she said.

Though proponents have said the aim of the bill was never to target Skoglund or the commission, the first hearing on the bill featured personal attacks on the watchdog. Last year, Republican lawmakers briefly sought to oust Skoglund as news broke about the wide-ranging subpoenas.

“Unfortunately, this is sometimes how the sausage gets made in Topeka,” Rep. Brandon Woodard, a Lenexa Democrat, said. “I think we went from a very unprofessional start to getting people to start acting like the adults in the room. Because of that we got to a product that ultimately everyone was able to support.”