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Kansas Republican lawmakers back off on dumping ethics boss leading a campaign finance probe

040122_BM_Kansas Ethics Commission.JPG
Blaise Mesa
/
Kansas News Service
The office of the Governmental Ethics Commission in Topeka.

Some lawmakers wanted to remove the leader of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission after reports the group subpoenaed lawmakers and lobbyists as part of an investigation.

This story has been updated.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Republican lawmakers on Friday pushed to oust the head of the state ethics commission amid reports that the agency issued dozens of subpoenas in an investigation into possible campaign finance violations.

But criticism of the move was followed by a quick reversal Friday afternoon.

Republican members of a joint House-and-Senate conference committee on Friday urged the adoption of a last-minute amendment to an election bill that would have effectively forced Mark Skoglund to step down as the executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.

The withdrawn proposal would have required the director to be a licensed attorney in good standing for three years prior to assuming the position. Skoglund’s law license lapsed in 2017. He said in an interview that he chose not to renew it.

“It wasn’t needed for my job and it’s an expensive license to maintain,” Skoglund said.

Skoglund’s predecessor, Carol Williams, was not an attorney.

Republican Sen. Rob Olsen, the chair of the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee, said mid-afternoon Friday that the proposal to reserve the ethics commission job for lawyers had been withdrawn.

Skoglund said state law prohibited him from confirming whether subpoenas had been issued in connection with an ongoing investigation. But he said he believes he’s being targeted by certain lawmakers.

“This is a transparent attempt to undermine the ethics commission and to oust me as executive director,” he said.

Skoglund declined to comment when asked why lawmakers would attempt to remove him.

Copies of subpoenas obtained by the Sunflower State Journal indicated that officials were looking into communications involving Republican-affiliated political action committees, including The Right Way Kansas PAC for Economic Growth and the Lift Up Kansas PAC. 

In 2020, the Lift Up Kansas PAC paid $50,000 to Battleground Connect, an Atlanta, Georgia, firm. The company’s website says Battleground “has a proven record of electing conservatives to municipal, state and federal offices.”

The Right Way PAC was formed in July 2021 by H.J. Swender, an executive with Garden City oil and gas company American Warrior, Inc.

Swender was a member of the 2016 class of Leadership Kansas, a program sponsored by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce.

Sherriene Jones-Sontag, a spokesperson for the Chamber, confirmed Friday that members of the powerful organization had received subpoenas from the commission as part of what she called a "fishing expedition."

"The subpoenas issued by the commission do not give a clear reason why they were issued," Jones-Sontag said.

The Chamber and it's political action committee, Jones-Sontag said, "carefully follow the state's heavily regulated campaign finance laws."

Democratic Rep. Vic Miller, a member of the elections conference committee, called the timing of the proposed amendment suspicious given reports circulating at the Statehouse about subpoenas issued to multiple lawmakers.

“They are significant enough rumors that relate directly to the underlying concept of this legislation that I bring it up,” Miller said during a Friday meeting of the conference committee. “The timing is all wrong, given what I’ve been hearing.”

Olsen, the chair of the committee, said he had “no knowledge of any subpoenas on anybody or anything.”

As to the timing of the amendment, Olson said he was surprised to learn the job requirement wasn’t already in state law.

“This is a loophole that needs to be closed,” he said before the new job requirement proposal was withdrawn.

Before starting at the ethics commission in 2017, Skoglund practiced at the Kansas City law firm of Sanders Warren & Russell. He has a law degree from the University of Michigan and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Kansas.

Two motions filed this week by lawyers representing Fresh Vision OP, a group of Johnson County parents accused by the ethics commission of not following state campaign finance laws, allege Skoglund failed to correct the record when he was identified as an active attorney during a recent hearing on the matter.

Skoglund told The Kansas City Star that he didn’t speak up because his status was not relevant to his role in the investigation.

Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks or email jim (at) kcur (dot) org. 

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org

Jim McLean is a political correspondent for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration based at KCUR with other public media stations across Kansas. You can email him at jim@kcur.org.
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