TOPEKA — House Republicans on Thursday launched a “brazen” plan to stifle an investigation into alleged illegal campaign activities by rewriting numerous ethics rules and weakening the authority of Kansas’ government Ethics Commission.
The massive changes included in House Bill 2391 would allow for unlimited campaign contributions and coordination between candidates for public office and political action committees, which would no longer need to register. The ethics commission would lose powers and resources to subpoena and could be overhauled with partisan players.
A new two-year statute of limitations would free organizations of unspecified individuals from “gross violations” of state law, Mark Skoglund, executive director of the ethics committee, said in prepared testimony for the House Election Committee.
Skoglund and others appeared before the committee on Thursday to discuss the bill. Skoglund alternately described the bill as “arrogant”, “brazen”, “sad”, “absurd”, “terrible” and “shameless” legislation “designed to undermine the ongoing investigation”.
“If this bill were to pass, transparency in the state would be non-existent,” Skoglund said. “Campaign finance rules that apply anywhere in the country would be openly flaunted in Kansas. The few remaining violations could never be investigated by the commission.”
House Republicans attempted to force Skoglund from his position last year when allegations of misconduct surfaced in litigation between GOP political advisers Jared Suhn and Kris Van Meteren. The ethics committee has issued subpoenas to Republican lawmakers and political operatives, including the Kansas House, as part of an investigation into alleged violations of the campaign finance law.
Paul Wagoner representative, R-Hutchinson, formally introduced the HB 2391 without putting his name on it. The bill was authored by attorneys Josh Ney and Ryan Kriegshauser, who represent Suhn in a legal dispute with Van Meteren over clients.
Ney, appearing before the commission, said the ethics commission is “structurally broken” and lacks accountability. Ney said Skoglund’s complaints about the proposed legislation amounted to “gaslighting.”
Those complaints, Ney said, are the “bureaucratic equivalent of your child threatening to yell, ‘You’re not my mum,’ in a public market if you make him stop climbing the racks.”
Ney and Kriegshauser say the ethics commission unfairly treated Republicans differently from Democrats. In written testimony, Kriegshauser said that Suhn’s business was impacted by the publicity about the ethics investigation, even though Suhn is not the subject of an ethics complaint.
The proposed changes in state law and the committee discussion on Thursday offer fresh insight into the alleged violations, although the specific goals of the investigation remain uncertain.
“Why the hell would you sue people’s cell phones, text messages and the like?” Wagoner asked. “It looks like a fishing expedition, it looks very over the top, for campaign finance.”
Skoglund said he could not confirm or deny aspects of the investigation, but provided a hypothetical answer.
“We talk about a quid pro quo situation,” Skoglund said.
In his alleged scenario, a legislator receives a maximum campaign contribution in exchange for voting a certain way on a particular issue.
“Who here doesn’t use text for casual communication?” Sköglund said. “And this is where the quid pro quo happened.”
Rep. Pat Proctor, R-Leavenworth, chair of the Election Committee, said the decision to issue subpoenas during an election year to ballot and PAC candidates had a “chilling effect” on the speech. Courts have ruled that campaign spending equals constitutionally protected free speech.
House Minority Leader Vic Miller, speaking at a news conference Monday, said no Democrats are involved in the investigation.
“If you’re not violating ethics, you shouldn’t worry about the process that goes into enforcing them,” Miller said.
Skoglund’s testimony repeatedly pointed to changes in the law related to an ongoing investigation involving multiple anonymous agencies.
For example, the bill would legalize coordination between a candidate’s campaign and a PAC. It would also allow contributions “on behalf of another,” effectively removing limits on the amount a single person or entity can donate to a candidate, which no other state allows.
“A wealthy donor could give their all to a campaign and then route the money through countless shell companies, business associates, family members, PACs or dark money groups and this conduct would be legal,” Skoglund said. “The goal of the bill is pretty obvious.”
The bill would impose a two-year statute of limitations to penalize ethics violations. Skoglund said “serious violations currently under investigation date back to a two-year period”.
In addition, the bill would remove the ethics committee’s subpoena powers, making it difficult to prove serious violations, and would prohibit the ethics committee from using witness cooperation agreements.
A new review standard would require a district court judge to evaluate evidence before finding an ethics violation. Currently, the findings of the ethics commission can be appealed in the district court.
PACs would no longer have to register with the ethics committee, thanks to a loophole that sees expenses classified as “advocacy.”
“This committee should be concerned about this bill’s direct attack on the transparency of the PAC,” Skoglund said. “It would result in substantially more dark money and fewer groups disclosing their contributors and spending. This can by no means be an ideal outcome for Kansas.
The bill would allow candidates to use campaign funds for a wider range of expenses. Skoglund suggested that campaign contributions could be used to fund family vacations.
All civil penalties collected by the ethics commission would be transferred to the state’s general fund, dealing a major financial blow to the commission’s ability to investigate violations.
The legislation also removes current state law requirements that no more than five of the nine ethics committee members belong to a single political party. It would also remove restrictions on who could serve on the commission. Under the proposed changes, party officials, newly elected officials, cabinet secretaries, lobbyists, and people with state contracts could serve on the commission.
Bradley Smith and David Keating, leaders of the Institute for Free Speech, formerly known as the Center for Competitive Politics, have spoken out in favor of the bill. Their organization opposes restrictions on campaign spending.
Most of the two-hour hearing focused on complaints about the ethics committee’s handling of a case involving Fresh Vision OP.
Chengny Thao and James Muir, of Fresh Vision OP, argued in favor of watering down the ethics commission’s authority. They were angry that Skoglund asked them to register as PACs after they raised money and worked to influence the outcome of an election in Overland Park.
Ney, the attorney, also represents Fresh Vision. Skoglund said the attention paid to the case has been a distraction from the real reasons for the bill.
“Over the past year, the commission has made our lives difficult,” Thao said. “They’ve drained our wallets. All because we had cajones to defend the construction of a concert hall in our backyards.
Rep. Michael Dodson, R-Manhattan, said he was “disturbed” that the committee was retrying the case.
“This is an odd tenor in what should be a factual hearing,” Dodson said.