TOPEKA (AP) — Some conservative Republicans' long-standing frustrations with the Kansas ethics commission are likely to prompt legislators to consider overhauling the watchdog agency this year or even stripping it of its enforcement duties.
TOPEKA (AP) — Some conservative Republicans' long-standing frustrations with the Kansas ethics commission are likely to prompt legislators to consider overhauling the watchdog agency this year or even stripping it of its enforcement duties. Carol Williams, the commission's executive director, expressed concern Tuesday about one proposal to have county prosecutors and the attorney general's office pursue potential fines against officials who violate ethics and campaign finance laws. She said those officials are likely to make such cases a low priority because of existing caseloads. But House Elections Committee Scott Schwab, a conservative Olathe Republican, said interest is strong among his colleagues in examining the commission and considering changes. Schwab said once legislators convene their annual session Monday, his committee will debate taking away the commission's enforcement duties and imposing term limits on commission members. Some Republican legislators contend the commission is more aggressive in investigating and fining conservatives than moderates or liberals. Schwab said that perception "taints everything" the commission does. "There are a lot of folks coming up to me and saying, 'You need to change that commission,'" Schwab told The Associated Press. "We'll hear more once the session gets started." Conservatives will control both the House and Senate. Previously, GOP moderates led the Senate and had no interest in overhauling the Governmental Ethics Commission, but senators who'll be influential this year said they are willing to examine the commission. "I think there's interest," said Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Dennis Pyle, a conservative Hiawatha Republican. The debate will come with conservative elected officials poised to gain a majority of appointments to the bipartisan, nine-member commission. Gov. Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican, has two appointees. Incoming Senate President Susan Wagle of Wichita and new House Speaker Ray Merrick of Stilwell, both conservative Republicans, can each name a member. Another appointment was made last year by Secretary of State Kris Kobach, another GOP conservative. The House and Senate's Democratic leaders each have an appointment, as do Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss. Williams said that if the officials who appoint commission members are unhappy with their work, they can replace them. "You wanted a group of people who were autonomous from any elected officials," she said. Some elected officials have been suspicious of the commission since its creation in 1974. In 1994, then-Gov. Joan Finney, a Democrat who'd been investigated by the commission, suggested replacing it with an elected state auditor. In 1998, the commission attempted to require the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life to disclose details about spending on radio "issue" ads, only to be blocked by a federal court. Its largest fine ever, $45,000, was imposed in 2007 against a conservative House Republican after the commission concluded she'd improperly converted campaign funds to personal use. Also, state Sen. Dwayne Umbarger, a Thayer Republican, was accused by a more conservative opponent in 2008 of spending campaign dollars on personal items. Schwab cited this case repeatedly as a reason for wanting a change. The commission dropped the case after Umbarger reimbursed his campaign. The commission then fined his opponent $7,500 for discussing the case publicly but was forced to drop the sanction when the attorney general's office said its confidentiality rule was unconstitutional. But Williams noted that groups or officials sanctioned by the commission include an abortion-rights political action committee and Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. "They're very even-handed," Hensley said.