Lawmaker fined for soliciting funds

? A legislator who wants to be Kansas’ top election official was fined $3,000 by the state ethics commission Thursday for soliciting campaign contributions from lobbyists during the legislative session.

But Sen. Kay O’Connor, R-Olathe, said she wasn’t trying to raise money when she sent letters to about 150 people in April, including 17 lobbyists. She said she was trying to gauge support for a potential campaign for secretary of state next year – which she launched in June.

She can challenge the commission’s fine in court, but said she hadn’t decided whether she would.

“I still maintain I’ve done nothing wrong,” she said. “It may be politically expedient to pay the fine and move on.”

A 1990 state law prohibits legislators from soliciting contributions from lobbyists, businesses and political action committees while lawmakers are in session – until May 20 this year.

The conservative Republican said during an interview the commission’s investigation of her letter was political.

Commission members unanimously concluded her letter was an attempt to solicit money. Chairman Dan Sevart, a Wichita attorney, said O’Connor and her attorney were “parsing words” in suggesting it wasn’t.

“Politics had nothing to do with it,” he said.

The commission’s fine came the same day Ohio Gov. Bob Taft pleaded no-contest in state court to failing to report 52 gifts worth nearly $6,000. And it came a day after Adam Taff, a two-time GOP candidate in the 3rd Congressional District, was indicted on federal charges of using campaign money to cover a check for a down payment on his house.

Last month, the commission fined Rep. Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, only $1 for soliciting contributions from lobbyists before the session ended.

However, Merrick reported the problem, saying invitations for a June fundraiser were inadvertently mailed early. Also, Sevart said, Merrick, the House speaker pro tem, was contrite.

In O’Connor’s case, Sevart said, “I didn’t see any contrition here today.”

O’Connor is challenging Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh in next year’s Republican primary. The secretary of state appoints one of the commission’s nine members, though five current commission members are Republicans, with two Democrats and two vacancies.

O’Connor noted state law prohibits someone fined by the commission from seeking statewide office unless the fine has been paid or challenged in court.

“What a neat way to kick out your opponent,” O’Connor said.

Thornburgh replied: “I’ve heard a lot of goofy conspiracies, but the fact that I appoint a single member there has nothing to do with the fact that she sent a letter to lobbyists during the session asking them for money.”

In arguing that she wasn’t soliciting money, O’Connor cited part of her letter: “The reason for this letter to you in this personal matter is to find out if there will be enough financial help to get me elected. I am not asking for a check at this time.”

But commission members said the letter told recipients that if they were inclined to send O’Connor a check, it would go to her Senate campaign fund. Also, a pledge sheet was attached.