Long before Jeff Colyer became governor of Kansas, he tried to make it to Congress.
And even though he's abandoned those efforts, the most recent federal campaign finance filings show Colyer still has nearly $240,000 of debt in his congressional campaign committee fund — outstanding loans that he made to his own campaign more than a decade ago that the campaign has never paid back.
“I think it looks terrible,” said Richard W. Painter, who served as chief ethics counsel for former President George W. Bush and is now running as a Democrat for a U.S. Senate seat. "Why not just close the books and write off the debt?"
It's not illegal, said Joseph Birkenstock, a campaign finance lawyer who is the former chief counsel for the Democratic National Committee, but it could cause unease among donors.
“The only rationale to keep it open that I can think of is because he eventually wants to be able to pay himself back,” Birkenstock said. “But, in practice, that’s very difficult fundraising, and it does raise this ethical concern of, in other words, this money only goes back into your pocket.”
Colyer, an Overland Park Republican, ran unsuccessfully in the 2002 Republican primary in the Kansas' 3rd District before resurrecting his political career. He won a Kansas House seat in 2006 and eventually served in the state Senate before becoming Sam Brownback’s lieutenant governor and then his successor.
During that time, the $239,455 in debt owed by the campaign committee to Colyer has remained on the books.
Colyer could forgive the debt, or he could raise money to repay himself.
He said Thursday that although he never mounted another run for Congress, he continued to look at the race.
“We just decided that’s how we wanted to do it,” Colyer said about the committee remaining open. “Who knows? We may run ... a long time ago we may have been running for it."
Campaign finance experts said the outstanding debt raises questions.
“It’s odd,” said Brendan Fischer, who is director of the federal reform program at the Campaign Legal Center and who focuses on campaign finance. “I don’t know why he wouldn’t have just forgiven his loans as opposed to continuing to file reports for years showing the same outstanding loans.”
In effect, Colyer has ended up eating the loans, said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a group that advocates for greater ethics and transparency in government. He can keep them on the books, Holman said, but the money’s essentially gone.
The nearly $240,000 in debt includes a loan of more than $131,000 that campaign finance records show Colyer made three days after Christmas in 2006. The finance report shows that on the same date, Colyer’s campaign committee spent roughly $133,000 to pay off a loan and interest to Gold Bank of Overland Park.
Colyer now is seeking the GOP nomination for governor, running against Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer and former nominee Jim Barnett.
Officials with his current campaign made it clear when finance reports for the governor’s race were released earlier this year that Colyer had not lent his campaign any money. Despite Kobach’s name recognition, Colyer led the Republican field in contributions.
Campaign finance loans brought Colyer great scrutiny in 2014, when he and Brownback were seeking re-election.
On Dec. 31, 2013, Colyer lent the campaign $500,000. It was repaid two days later, after a campaign finance filing deadline. In July, Colyer again lent the campaign $500,000; again, it was repaid two days later. Democrats accused Colyer of artificially increasing Brownback's finance totals with a floating loan.
Finally, in August that year, Colyer lent the campaign $500,000. That loan was not repaid until after the election. At the time, Brownback's campaign called the movement of money "simply an issue of cash management."
The first loans and their quick repayment drew the attention of federal investigators. Colyer has refused to provide any more details about the loans or the investigation, which concluded in 2015 without any charges.
Colyer, a physician with a focus on plastic surgery, has continued to work in medicine during his time as governor, which started in January when Brownback left Kansas for the Trump administration.
After being asked why he didn’t just forgive the loan, Colyer briefly laughed.
“It’s not a campaign issue,” he said. “It’s just an accounting issue that I took care of.”
Asked how he'd taken care of it, Colyer raised his voice and said, “I paid it.”
In an email Thursday afternoon, a spokesman for Colyer said: "Gov. Colyer's accountant recommended that he leave the account open for the time being. The account has no operating costs and there is no real reason to close it at this time."
The spokesman later said Colyer didn't plan to raise money to pay off the debt.