TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Ethics Commission has been investigating Republican campaign activities for at least a year, and the GOP-controlled legislature is moving to reduce the agency’s power and legalize the practices apparently under scrutiny.
Republicans supporting a bill to overhaul the state government’s Ethics Commission and rewrite campaign finance laws said Wednesday they were trying to ensure fair treatment of individuals and groups scrutinized by the commission. But lawmakers drafted this year’s measure amid a court battle over the commission’s request for documents by Kansas Republican Party officials, and critics see the bill as an effort to kneel the agency.
Court documents filed on the subpoenas issued by the commission indicate that it investigated whether Republicans funneled national GOP funds through various committees to legislative candidates in 2020 to avoid contribution caps. A committee report released in October includes transactions involving Kansas Senate Speaker Ty Masterson and House Speaker Dan Hawkins, both Wichita-area Republicans, before they assumed those offices. The report, however, does not specifically allege wrongdoing on their part, and the commission has yet to file any complaints on those matters.
It hasn’t escaped senior critics of the bill that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Watergate investigation, the political dirty tricks and obstruction-of-justice scandal that later forced then-President Richard Nixon to step down. Those scandals prompted Kansas lawmakers to create the ethics commission and enact campaigning, lobbying, and ethics laws.
“Maybe we’ve forgotten what happens when the government goes crazy in the dark of night,” said Democratic State Representative John Carmichael, of Wichita, an attorney in his 60s.
Republicans argue that the ethics commission is engaged in an unwarranted fishing expedition and that lawmakers need to make sure people’s right to due legal process is protected.
Masterson told reporters earlier this month that the commission had asked about his communications, but “they’ve since dropped it.” Hawkins said Wednesday that he has not been subpoenaed.
“It’s like I’m guilty until proven guilty, like I’m guilty of something. I didn’t do anything,” Masterson said. “I’m not worried about any of that.”
The GOP-dominated House Election Committee approved the bill on Tuesday by an 8-to-4 vote, sending it to the entire House for debate as early as this week.
Committee chairman Pat Proctor, a Republican from the Kansas City area, said Wednesday that because the bill is not retroactive, it will not interfere with the committee’s ongoing investigation. He argued that money represents speech when it is used for political purposes, making ethics commission an agency that regulates speech, so it deserves scrutiny.
“It’s a false argument that we’re not allowed to talk about ethics because there may or may not be an investigation going on,” Proctor said.
This year’s bill would cap the commission’s fines and require the commission to obtain permission from a state district court judge to issue a subpoena. A judge could fine the panel for subpoenas deemed to create “an undue burden or expense,” and hearings of complainants could be handled by an outside administrative judge rather than the panel.
In most cases, it would no longer be illegal for a donor to give money to an individual or group specifically to pass it on to the prime donor’s favored candidate, making it easier to circumvent contribution limits. Restrictions on candidates channeling their campaign contributions to other candidates, party groups or political action committees would be lifted.
Critics say such changes would make state campaign finance laws meaningless. After the committee approved the bill, Skoglund told reporters the measure “represents exactly the premise that if you’re powerful enough, you simply change the law to make what you’re doing legal.”
State Representative Cindy Neighbor, a Kansas City-area Democrat, said Wednesday, “This to me is more of a witch hunt and trying to take something down because I didn’t like the outcome.”
In February 2020, the commission issued subpoenas to at least seven Kansas Republican Party officials, demanding all communication — including emails, texts, and social media messages — between them and at least 20 other people, including Masterson, for the last seven months of 2020.
In April, a Kansas Chamber of Commerce lobbyist told reporters the group had also received a subpoena. His revelation came as GOP lawmakers spent hours trying to rewrite the laws organizing the commission so that Skoglund would be no more qualified for the job than he was.
In August, the commission went to the state district court in Shawnee County, seat of the Kansas capital, Topeka, to have the subpoenas enforced. A lawyer for several recipients has made his own, together with the relevant “Findings of fact and conclusions of law” of the commission, public.
In late December, a judge heard arguments about quashing the subpoenas and indicated from the bench that he was considering whether they were too broad. He hadn’t ruled until Wednesday.