Topeka — At least a few Republican legislators have a keen interest in an investigation of Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' re-election campaign, viewing it as a crucial test of whether the state ethics commission is truly nonpolitical.
Sebelius faces a fine of up to $5,000 over whether her campaign committee solicited contributions from lobbyists. State law bans legislators, statewide officials and candidates for their offices from seeking or accepting donations from lobbyists, corporations or political action committees while the Legislature is in session.
She is the fourth public official in a year to face such an inquiry. The commission fined Atty. Gen. Phill Kline, a Republican, $1,500 last month because a consulting firm working for his re-election campaign violated the same law.
The Governmental Ethics Commission plans to consider Sebelius' case at 1 p.m. today.
Some Republicans, especially conservatives, believe the governor should receive a fine as large or larger than Kline's. Conservative GOP legislators have been suspicious of the commission for years.
"We're anxiously awaiting the outcome to see whether or not they are really nonpartisan," House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, said Tuesday.
Mays said not fining Sebelius as much as Kline would be "a very bad thing."
"It would undermine the whole credibility of the agency," he said.
Earlier this month, Sebelius' campaign sent out a batch e-mail designed to update recipients on school finance issues. It included a link to the governor's campaign Web site, where contributions could be made, and at least a few lobbyists received it.
In Kline's case, his campaign consultants mailed invitations for a February fundraising event to some lobbyists by mistake.
Sebelius spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran said the issues in the governor's case and Kline's are "completely different," because Kline's invitation was a direct solicitation, while Sebelius' e-mail update was not.
"This was an issue update on education. This was an e-mail that was sent out. It was a new, electronic way to get a message out," Corcoran said. "Actually, we look forward to some guidelines from the ethics commission on something that's totally new. No one has addressed what's OK with an e-mail, what's OK with a link to a Web site."
Carol Williams, the commission's executive director, said Sebelius' political affiliation won't play a role in its deliberations - just as Kline's didn't.
The governor appoints two of the commission's nine members, and the attorney general appoints one. Other members are appointed by the secretary of state, the Supreme Court chief justice and legislative leaders.
Also, lobbyists, cabinet secretaries, elected officials and political party officers can't serve on the commission within five years of holding any of those jobs.
Bias from 1998
Sebelius herself served on the commission in the 1970s, as did former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker, a Republican, before she entered statewide politics.
"There's just never been party politics played by the commission," said Williams, who's worked for the commission for nearly three decades. "That's been something I've been proud of."
Some accusations that the commission has a bias against conservatives stem from its attempt in 1998 to enforce a law regulating issue-oriented campaigns.
The commission tried to force Kansans for Life, the state's largest anti-abortion group, to disclose its contributors and expenditures for radio advertising against then-Gov. Bill Graves, a moderate, in that year's GOP primary.
A federal judge blocked its attempt.
Last year, Sen. Kay O'Connor, R-Olathe, also a conservative, paid a $3,000 fine but acknowledged no intent to raise money with a letter that some lobbyists received. O'Connor is running for secretary of state this year.
Sebelius won't attend
Kline's fine also fueled suspicions, especially because his office reported the problem to the commission, while lobbyists' questions sparked the Sebelius investigation.
Kline defended his campaign in person. Corcoran said Sebelius does not plan to attend the commission meeting, citing conflicts in her schedule, including a speech to firefighters in Lawrence.
"Her fine should be bigger, and she should be there in person to answer what occurred," said Senate Elections and Local Government Committee Chairman Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, a conservative critic of the commission.
But the commission's defenders note that Rep. Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, was fined only $1 last year after acknowledging that a fundraising letter was sent early by his wife while he was bear hunting in Canada. Merrick also reported the problem to the commission and cooperated with its investigation.
"The commission bases its decisions on the merits of the cases," Williams said.