The Kansas ethics commission recently fined the president of the state Senate in connection with her decision to endorse Republican Kris Kobach during the primary campaign for governor.
Senate President Susan Wagle called Kobach the race’s “strongest conservative” and asked Kansans to “stand with the candidate who best reflects Kansas values.”
Problem was, Wagle’s staff used an official government email account and a government computer to distribute the endorsement far and wide. That’s a no-no, and to its credit, Wagle’s office fessed up and reported the transgression to ethics officials on its own.
Still, it was a serious breach. The prohibition on elected officials using state equipment to do political work is covered in Ethics 101. A similar offense sent former Missouri Attorney General Bill Webster, once a rising star on the national GOP scene, to prison.
But in an all-too-predictable ethics commission move, it imposed a $1,000 fine on Wagle, but then waived $900 of that if her campaign paid the remaining $100 and Wagle arranged ethics training for her legislative staff.
Wagle is allowed to pay the $100 fine out of her considerable campaign account. At last reckoning, Wagle had more than $314,000 in the bank, meaning that the loss of $100 won’t be any more bother than brushing a fly off a shoulder.
This all points to a larger question that’s dogged ethics watchdog agencies in Kansas and Missouri for years: What’s the point? If our ethics agencies are that toothless, they clearly need an overhaul.
The issue isn’t confined to Kansas. Remember all that controversy over former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens and his campaign’s use of a donor list from The Mission Continues, the nonprofit he founded in 2007?
The commission determined that Greitens had failed to disclose that his campaign had obtained the list. Federal law bars nonprofits like The Mission Continues from intervening in political campaigns on behalf of candidates. An Associated Press analysis found that Greitens’ campaign took in nearly $2 million from donors to The Mission Continues who had previously given significant amounts to the nonprofit.
But when it came to doling out fines, the commission penalized the governor $1,000 and then cut it to $100 if Greitens doesn’t violate campaign laws for two years.
Plenty of violations never make it into the media. Freedom Inc., the prominent East Side Kansas City political club, this year was found to have committed a string of campaign violations. Among them: failure to maintain an official bank account, failure to report expenditures in a timely and accurate manner, failure to maintain dependable committee records, acceptance of over-the-limit cash contributions, failure to report contributions received in a timely manner.
In other words, the committee was doing hardly anything right. The potential for abuse was through the roof.
Yet the fine imposed was just $8,125. If the committee paid $1,217 of that within 45 days of the commission’s order, the rest of the fine was forgiven.
One issue here is that the very people the ethics commissions oversee set their budgets. Paltry fines may be a consequence of that.
The commissions need more independence and budget guarantees, which would be much-needed steps toward restoring trust in government.