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Kansas chamber subpoenaed; ethics official briefly targeted

Kansas State Capitol .jpg
Posted at 4:11 PM, Apr 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-01 17:11:18-04

TOPEKA, Kan. — A powerful Kansas business group said Friday that it has received subpoenas from the state ethics commission for information about campaign finance activities as Republican lawmakers pushed but then abruptly dropped a plan to oust the commission's top staffer.

A spokesperson for the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, long influential among Republicans in the GOP-controlled Kansas Legislature, said in a statement that the Governmental Ethics Commission has launched "an extreme fishing expedition aimed at silencing political speech."

The chamber declined to comment on the exact details of the subpoenas.

That statement came after GOP senators negotiating with House members over an elections bill proposed setting new qualifications for the ethics commission's executive director. The change would remove current Executive Director Mark Skoglund from the job.

When the Republican senators made the proposal Friday, one House negotiator, Democratic state Rep. Vic Miller, of Topeka, said he's heard for about a month that about 30 lawmakers have received ethics commission subpoenas, but he acknowledged having no evidence.

Miller's comments led reporters to question a Kansas Chamber lobbyist at the Statehouse, and the lobbyist said chamber staffers had received requests for information from the commission.

"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," Kansas Chamber spokesperson Sherriene Jones-Sontag said.

Republican negotiators for both the House and the Senate initially said they were inclined to add the provision on the ethics commission to an elections bill so that both chambers could vote on it later Friday, before lawmakers began their annual spring break.

But Sen. Rob Olson, an Olathe Republican and the Senate's chief negotiator, said Friday afternoon that the proposal had been withdrawn and wouldn't be considered.

Asked why the measure had been dropped, he said: "It just has."

Meanwhile, reporters asked House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, whether lawmakers have been subpoenaed. He read a statement off his phone citing a provision in the Kansas Constitution that protects legislators from being subpoenaed while they are in session.

"There haven't been any lawful subpoenas issued that I know of," he told reporters.

Senate President Ty Masterson's office issued a statement saying that the legislative session "is not the appropriate venue to discuss or comment on subpoenas of any sort."

But Masterson, an Andover Republican, told reporters: "It does appear that somebody weaponized the ethics department."

Republican lawmakers wanted to require the ethics commission's executive director to be an attorney with an active Kansas license. Skoglund is an attorney, but his license is suspended, according to an online Kansas Supreme Court database.

Skoglund said he declined to pay fees and pay for continuing legal education courses while working first for the Legislature's research staff and then the commission. His predecessor was not an attorney and held the job for decades.

"Obviously, there are serious issues when an entity that is under the oversight of the ethics commission attempts to create legislation targeted at undermining the ethics commission," he told reporters Friday.

Key Republican lawmakers said they have concerns about Skoglund that justified setting qualifications for the executive director's job.

The Topeka Capital-Journal reported earlier this week that Republicans are suggesting that Skoglund had a duty to say his law license was suspended when questioned as a witness during a recent commission campaign finance hearing. In an exchange with a lawyer, a commission member described Skoglund as "a licensed attorney" subject to disciplinary rules, and Skoglund did not respond.

That led Republicans to suggest Skoglund misrepresented his status. Olson initially said Friday morning that the situation led senators to conclude that the executive director should be an active attorney.

"The person in charge of ethics should be held to the highest standard," Ryckman said.

Skoglund said neither he nor the commission had any contact from legislators or their staff about such issues. Miller questioned the timing of the proposal because neither chamber, nor any committee, considered it previously.

"It raises my suspicions when anything of this consequence is offered in this fashion," Miller said. "If this is such a good idea, why is there not a bill? Why has it not been discussed before? Why are we not having hearings?"