Lawmakers back off ethics commission proposal

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Republican lawmakers have retreated from a proposal that would have removed the executive director from his position at the state ethics commission after lawmakers were subpoenaed as part of an investigation.

Republican state Sen. Rob Olson of Olathe said the proposal had been pulled back and Senate President Ty Masterson said he didn’t want to “muddy the waters this late in the session.”

A House-Senate conference committee on Friday took up a proposal that would require the executive director to be a licensed attorney in good standing – meaning their license wasn’t suspended – for three years before July 1, 2022 or the date of hire, whichever is later.

The bill would have immediately cost Mark Skoglund his job after a nonprofit group engaged in a fight with the ethics commission over whether it should be labeled as a political action committee and forced to reveal its donors.

The group – Fresh Vision OP –  says that Skoglund’s law license was suspended as it seeks to get the case dismissed or a rehearing on the issue.

Democratic state Rep. Vic Miller of Topeka questioned the timing of the proposal, given widespread talk at the Capitol about the agency issuing subpoenas to lawmakers.

“I have been hearing rumors for the better part of probably a month that there are some 30 subpoenas issued to elected members,” Miller said.

Vic Miller

“I will say they’re rumors. I have no facts, ” he said. “But they are significant enough rumors that relate directly to the underlying concept of this legislation that I bring it up.

“Whether it was this proposal or any, the timing is wrong for a matter of this kind of significance.”

On Friday afternoon, the ethics commission issued a statement supporting Skoglund and opposing efforts to change the job requirements.

“All Kansans should be deeply concerned about efforts by the Legislature to target the Ethics Commission,” the commission said in a statement.

“Legislative efforts to undermine the Ethics Commission undermine an important check on governmental conduct,” the commission said.

“We wholly support Executive Director Skoglund and staunchly oppose this effort to undermine the Governmental Ethics Commission.”

Mark Skogland

The Sunflower State Journal has obtained copies of two subpoenas from the ethics commission, one sent to a lawmaker and another sent to a political leader outside the Kansas statehouse. Both were dated Feb. 23.

Just because someone received a subpoena or is mentioned in one doesn’t mean they violated any law or are the focus of any ethics investigation.

The subpoenas, which sought different information from each individual, were issued by a unanimous vote of the ethics commission and signed by its chairman, according to the copies obtained by the Sunflower State Journal.

In some cases, the subpoenas overlapped in seeking the same information but in other instances they sought different information.

The subpoenas are broad in nature, seeking all communications including emails, texts and social media messages with many different political leaders and strategists about a variety of topics including Republican-affiliated political action committees.

It was not clear from the documents what the ethics commission was investigating.

One subpoena indicated that ethics officials were looking for communications about The Right Way Kansas PAC for Economic Growth and the Lift Up Kansas PAC.

Formed in 2019, the Lift Up Kansas political action committee has been gaining fundraising momentum going into the 2022 elections

The Lift Up PAC was started by Matthew Billingsley of Topeka, who once served as the chief of staff to former Revenue Secretary Sam Williams during former Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration..

The PAC reported raising $160,000 during 2021, with the help of a $50,000 contribution from Evergy and $15,000 from Wichita businessman Phil Ruffin.

The Right Way PAC for Economic Growth’s treasurer is western Kansas businessman H.J. Swender.

The subpoena also shows that the ethics officials are looking at individual transactions between the Johnson County Republican Central Committee and the House Republican Campaign Committee and the Kansas Republican Party.

It also showed they were looking at specific transactions between the Johnson County Republican Central Committee and Republican state Sens. Mike Thompson of Shawnee and Beverly Gossage of Eudora.

The subpoena also shows that ethics officials were looking for communications related to executives at the Kansas Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber issued a statement Friday in response to the subpoena.

“The subpoenas issued by the commission do not give a clear reason why they were issued and are nothing more than an extreme fishing expedition aimed at silencing political speech,” said chamber spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag.

“It is very troubling that a quasi-judicial agency in Kansas would use its power to exercise such a government overreach,” Jones-Sontag said.

“Frankly, these actions appear to be motivated by the commission and its executive director’s desire to change the state’s campaign finance laws.

“If change is what the Kansas Ethics Commission wants, then it should talk with the Kansas Legislature,” she said.

Kansas political consultant Jared Suhn’s name also appears on one of the subpoenas.

He didn’t return phone calls and at one point, attorney Josh Ney, who represents Fresh Vision in the ethics case, returned a text on Suhn’s behalf.

The subpoenas also include names of other high profile Republican leaders and groups, including lobbyists for Americans for Prosperity.

A copy of the subpoena sent to one lawmaker made it clear that they were not necessarily in violation of any ethics and campaign finance laws.

The subpoena, the commission said, only means the lawmaker might have documents that are “relevant to a violation by someone.”

“A subpoena should not be taken as proof or evidence that anyone listed in the subpoena committed a violation,” the document said.

“Underlying allegations can be complicated,” the subpoena said. “Additionally, it is not uncommon for an investigation to exonerate individuals.”

House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr. didn’t say whether House members received any subpoenas, only that they were not allowed to be served during the session under the state Constitution.

“The Kansas Constitution is clear that legislators are not subject to civil legal process during the session,” Ryckman said in a statement.

“So there’s no way any member could be lawfully subpoenaed by the Ethics Commission at this time.”

Masterson’s office issued a brief statement earlier in the day before he was asked about why the ethics proposal was dropped.

“This is not the appropriate venue to discuss or comment on subpoenas of any sort.”

The amendment surfaced days after Skoglund’s credentials were called into question.

Fresh Vision OP is fighting an ethics commission finding that it’s a political action committee and should disclose its donors as a political action committee.

The group now wants the case dismissed or a new hearing partly based on Skoglund not disclosing that his law license was suspended when he was identified during the hearing as a “licensed attorney.”

The group notes in its petition that Skoglund’s law license had been suspended since 2015.

Skoglund has been the executive director of the ethics commission since 2017 after working as a principal fiscal analyst for the Legislative Research Department.

Skoglund said he chose not to maintain the license because he wasn’t using it and the license is expensive to maintain.

Republican lawmakers said the proposal was not an attempt to single out Skoglund, saying they were trying to fix a gap in the law.

“I have no knowledge of any subpoenas on anybody or anything,” said Republican state Sen. Rob Olson, chair of the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee.

“I think this is a loophole that needs to be closed,” Olson said. “This is a very important position. I’m surprised it already hadn’t been done by the Legislature.

“I really believe this is something that should be done. They should be a practicing lawyer. It’s a very important position.”

A law license is not required for the position and Carol Williams, the former longtime executive director of the commission, was not a licensed attorney.

Republican state Rep. John Barker said he thought it was appropriate to have an administrator in that position who was “trained in the law.”

“He is kind of an umpire,” Barker said. “He would understand the legal consequences.”

Skoglund has been the executive director of the ethics commission since 2017 after working as a principal fiscal analyst for the Legislative Research Department.

He previously practiced law at the Sanders Warren & Russell law firm in the Kansas City area.

He has a law degree from the University of Michigan and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Kansas.