GOP lawmakers push rule designed to force out Kansas ethics commission director

Democrat asks if proposal is response to issuance of subpoenas to legislators

By: - April 1, 2022 10:28 am

Republican members of a joint House-Senate negotiating committee moved Friday to require the executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission be a licensed attorney. The current director, Mark Skoglund, has a suspended license. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

TOPEKA — A House Democrat objected to an attempt Friday by Republican lawmakers to insert into a bill the requirement that an executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission had to be a licensed attorney in good standing for at least three years.

The idea was for a three-member Senate and three-member House negotiating committee to place the mandate in an unrelated bill, but it wasn’t clear that would be allowed under the Legislature’s rules. A separate, distinct bill might have to be introduced to move ahead with the employment requirement.

Mark Skoglund, executive director of the commission since 2017, was admitted to practice law in 2013 and subsequently allowed his law license to expire. The commissioner’s previous executive director, Carol Williams, wasn’t an attorney.

Skoglund said in an interview the ethics commission was “staunchly opposed to efforts that are transparently created to oust the current director.”

The late-breaking amendment to the bill would require the executive director to be a licensed attorney for at least three years before hired in that job. The limitation would take effect July 1.

The conflict arose late in the 2022 legislative session after lawyers representing a group of Johnson County parents accused of not following state campaign finance law filed a complaint Wednesday with the commission seeking dismissal or reconsideration of their case because Skoglund didn’t disclose during a hearing that his law license had been suspended years ago.

Rep. Vic Miller, a Topeka Democrat and an attorney on the six-legislator negotiating committee, asked GOP members of that panel whether the attempt to impose new requirements on the commission’s executive director had anything to do with “unnerving” speculation the commission issued subpoenas to dozens of state legislators.

“Is this a direct result of the rumors that are going around the building about the ethics commissioner issuing subpoenas to some of the members?” Miller said. “There are significant enough rumors that relate directly to the underlying concept of this legislation.”

Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Baxter Springs, proposed the legal requirement. He indicated he hadn’t been subpoenaed.

Skoglund said he couldn’t confirm or deny information regarding any ongoing investigation by the ethics commission.

In addition, he said, he couldn’t comment on the pending campaign finance regulatory action against an Overland Park group, Fresh Vision OP, that sent out mailers in 2021 in support of a candidate for mayor. The commission decided the group had 30 days to properly register as a political committee.

Joshua Ney, who represents individuals involved with Fresh Vision OP, filed the complaint against Skoglund based on concern the director didn’t correct the record when a member of the commission mistakenly said during a hearing on Fresh Vision OP that Skoglund was an active attorney.

Ney’s filing said the failure to disclose that information was grounds for dismissal of the complaint against Fresh Vision OP on due process grounds.

Skoglund filed an affidavit on that issue describing as immaterial to the case his status as a lawyer. He was bound by rules applicable to lawyers whether his license was suspended or active, he said.

In terms of the House-Senate conference committee adding unrelated content to House Bill 2579, Miller said it would be a violation of rules to bring into the bill subject matter that hadn’t been passed by either the House or Senate or considered by a committee in either chamber.

Hilderbrand said the introduction of a work requirement for executive directors of the ethics commission amounted to a “tweak” of the campaign finance bill.

“All conferences I’ve been on so far this year, they’ve amended language into a bill that we’re working just to tweak some language. And that’s what this will do,” Hilderbrand said.

Miller said he had strong reservations about the procedural move by Hilderbrand.

“It’s rather generous use of the word ‘tweak,’ ” Miller said. “When we have to change the title (of the bill) itself from ‘an act concerning campaign finance requiring electronic filing reports for state offices’ to a new title — ‘an act concerning governmental ethics relating to executive director of the governmental ethics commission.’ It’s a it’s a complete redo of the contents of 2579.”

The conference committee leaders, Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, and Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe, defended inclusion of the ethics commission mandate in the bill.

“It does relate to the requirements of campaign finance,” Barker said. “Who takes care of campaign finance? The executive director. But in some instances, a legal background is very helpful.”

Olson said he assumed state law would have required the ethics commission’s executive director to be a practicing attorney. He said it would be appropriate to “fix the loophole.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.