Kansas ethics director unleashes fury over ‘shameless’ attempt to stifle investigation

By: - February 16, 2023 7:20 pm
Mark Skoglund

Mark Skoglund, executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission, appears Thursday before the House Elections Committee to oppose sweeping changes to state ethics law. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

TOPEKA — House Republicans launched a “brazen” plan Thursday to stifle an investigation into alleged illegal campaign activities by rewriting numerous ethics rules and weakening the authority of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.

Massive changes included in House Bill 2391 would allow limitless campaign contributions and coordination between candidates for public office and political action committees, which no longer would need to register. The ethics commission would lose subpoena powers and resources, and could be overhauled with partisan players.

A new two-year statute of limitations would clear unspecified individuals and organizations from “severe violations” of state law, said Mark Skoglund, executive director of the ethics commission, in testimony prepared for the House Elections Committee.

Skoglund and others appeared before the committee Thursday to discuss the bill. Skoglund alternately described the bill as “arrogant,” “brazen,” “sad,” “absurd,” “terrible” and “shameless” legislation “designed to undermine ongoing investigations.”

“If this bill were to pass, transparency in the state would be nonexistent,” Skoglund said. “Campaign finance rules that apply everywhere else 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 out of his position last year as allegations of misconduct surfaced in litigation between GOP political consultants Jared Suhn and Kris Van Meteren. The ethics commission issued subpoenas to Republican legislators and political operatives, including the Kansas Chamber, as part of an investigation into alleged violations of campaign finance law.

Rep. Paul Waggoner, R-Hutchinson, formally introduced HB 2391 without putting his name on it. The bill was written by attorneys Josh Ney and Ryan Kriegshauser, who represent Suhn in a legal dispute with Van Meteren over clients.

Josh Ney
Josh Ney says complaints by the director of the ethics commission about changing ethics law amount to “gaslighting.” (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

Ney, appearing before the committee, said the ethics commission was “structurally broken” and lacks accountability. Ney said Skoglund’s complaints about proposed legislation amount to “gaslighting.”

Those complaints, Ney said, are “the bureaucratic equivalent of your kid threatening to scream, ‘You’re not my mommy,’ in a public marketplace if you make him stop climbing on the display racks.”

Ney and Kriegshauser claim the ethics commission has unfairly treated Republicans differently than Democrats. In written testimony, Kriegshauser said Suhn’s business has suffered from publicity about the ethics investigation, even though Suhn isn’t the subject of an ethics complaint.

The proposed changes in state law, and committee discussion Thursday, offer fresh insight into alleged violations, although specific targets of the investigation remain uncertain.

“Why on Earth would you be subpoenaing people’s cellphones and text messages and such?” Waggoner asked. “That seems like a fishing expedition, seems very over the top, for campaign finance.”

Skoglund said he couldn’t confirm or deny aspects of the investigation, but he provided a hypothetical answer.

“Let’s talk about the situation of a quid pro quo,” Skoglund said.

Under his supposed scenario, a legislator receives a maximum campaign contribution in exchange for voting a certain way on a particular issue.

“Who here does not use text for casual communication?” Skoglund said. “And that’s where quid pro quo has happened.”

Rep. Pat Proctor, R-Leavenworth, chairman of the Elections Committee, said the decision to issue subpoenas during an election year to candidates on a ballot and PACs had a “chilling effect” on speech. Courts have ruled that campaign spending amounts to constitutionally protected free speech.

House Minority Leader Vic Miller, speaking during a news conference Monday, said no Democrats are involved in the investigation.

“If you’re not violating ethics, you shouldn’t have to worry about the process that goes about enforcing them,” Miller said.

Vic Miller stands in front of House Democrats
House Minority Leader Vic Miller answers reporters’ questions during a Feb. 13, 2023, news conference. Miller said no Democrats were involved in the ethics commission’s investigation. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Skoglund’s testimony repeatedly pointed to changes in law that are related to a current, ongoing investigation that involves multiple unnamed agencies.

For example, the bill would legalize coordination between a candidate’s campaign and a PAC. It also would allow contributions “in the name of another,” effectively eliminating limits on the amount a single person or entity can donate to a candidate — something no other state allows.

“A wealthy donor could give the maximum to a campaign and then route money through innumerable shell corporations, business associates, family members, PACs, or dark money groups and this conduct would be legal,” Skoglund said. “The goal of the bill is rather obvious.”

The bill would impose a two-year statute of limitations for penalizing ethics violations. Skoglund said “severe violations currently under investigation predate a two-year time period.”

Additionally, the bill would take away the ethics commission’s subpoena powers, making it difficult to prove serious violations, and prohibit the ethics commission from using witness cooperation agreements.

A new standard of review would require a district court judge to evaluate evidence before finding an ethics violation. Currently, ethics commission findings may be appealed in district court.

PACs no longer would have to register with the ethics commission, thanks to a loophole involving the classification of expenses as “advocacy.”

“This committee should be concerned about this bill’s direct attack on PAC transparency,” Skoglund said. “It would result in substantially more dark money and fewer groups disclosing their contributors and expenditures. This cannot possibly be an ideal outcome for Kansans.”

The bill would allow candidates to use campaign funds for a broader array of expenses. Skoglund suggested campaign contributions could be used to fund family vacations.

All civil penalties collected by the ethics commission would be transferred to the state general fund, dealing a financial blow to the commission’s ability to investigate violations.

The legislation also removes requirements currently in state law that no more than five of the nine members of the ethics commission belong to a single political party. It also would eliminate restrictions on who could serve on the commission. Under the proposed changes, party officials, recently elected officials, cabinet secretaries, lobbyists and people who have state contracts could all serve on the commission.

Bradley Smith and David Keating, leaders of the Institute for Free Speech, formerly known as the Center for Competitive Politics, spoke in favor of the bill. Their organization opposes restrictions on campaign spending.

Most of the two-hour hearing focused on complaints about the ethics commission’s handling of a case involving Fresh Vision OP.

Chengny Thao and James Muir, of Fresh Vision OP, spoke in favor of blunting the ethics commission’s authority. They were irate that Skoglund asked them to register as a PAC after collecting money and working to influence the outcome of an election in Overland Park.

Ney, the attorney, also represents Fresh Vision. Skoglund said attention given to the case was a distraction from the real reasons for the bill.

“For the past year, the commission has made our lives difficult,” Thao said. “They have drained our pocketbooks. All because we had the cajones to advocate against a concert venue being built in our backyards.”

Rep. Michael Dodson, R-Manhattan, said he was “disturbed” the committee was retrying the case.

“This is a strange tenor to what is supposed to be a factual hearing,” Dodson said.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.