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Archive for Friday, December 22, 2006

Kline accused of ethics violations

Attorney general could be fined for allegedly using state computers for campaign

December 22, 2006

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— Outgoing Attorney General Phill Kline has been accused of improperly using state computers in his failed re-election campaign this year and could face a $5,000 fine from the state Governmental Ethics Commission.

But Tuck Duncan, a Topeka attorney representing Kline, said, "I don't think the allegation has any merit, because I don't believe there is any violation of the campaign finance law."

The commission plans to have a hearing Jan. 17 on the allegation, which it spelled out in a public notice after receiving information about e-mails linked to Kline's bid for a second term.

It is the second time within a year that Kline has faced sanctions from the commission. In March, it fined him $1,500 after he reported himself that a consulting firm working for his campaign had unintentionally but illegally solicited contributions from lobbyists.

The hearing in Kline's case is scheduled nine days after he steps down as attorney general and becomes Johnson County district attorney, replacing Democrat Paul Morrison, the man who ousted him from statewide office.

The commission isn't pursuing a criminal prosecution against Kline, however. It has the power to put together a case and forward it to state or local prosecutors, but frequently chooses to levy civil fines instead.

The commission's notice says only that in September, Kline used or authorized the use of state computers to copy and forward e-mail addresses to "expressly advocate" his re-election. Carol Williams, the commission's executive director, declined to provide additional details.

In September, Harris News Service reported that people who signed up for e-mail updates from Kline's office about a new state law allowing Kansans to carry concealed handguns also received e-mails from his campaign's Web site.

"I am writing to you because you have expressed an interest in issues handled by the attorney general's office," one e-mail, signed by Kline, said, according to the report.

But Duncan said the case involves "harvesting" of e-mail addresses. He also said "there's no factual basis" to allege that e-mails specifically urging people to vote for Kline were sent from state computers.

"When the all facts are known, their staff had given some prior consent to this harvesting activity," Duncan said, referring to the commission. He declined to elaborate, saying his own investigation isn't finished.

Kansas law prohibits employees of the state, its counties, first-class cities and the Wichita school district from using public funds, vehicles, supplies or equipment to advocate a candidate's election or defeat. Elected officials and their personal staffs can use their time, however.

People who violate the law can be charged with a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to one month in jail and a fine of up to $500. Most campaign violations are Class A misdemeanors, punished by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.

"Because of who the participants are, this a bigger deal than what it really is," Duncan said. "In terms of the question of law, this is a really minor issue. I think I'm going to demonstrate to the commission that there was no violation."

Although governors and legislators have been fined for violations, Kline is the first attorney general. The ethics commission's hearing also represents a potential embarrassment for Kline as he moves into his new job as the top prosecutor in the state's most populous county.

That unprecedented job switch with Morrison was possible because Morrison won five terms as district attorney as a Republican before switching parties last year to challenge Kline. State law gave GOP precinct committee members in Johnson County the right to replace Morrison.

The state and Johnson County GOP organizations are controlled by Kline's fellow conservative Republicans, and he prevailed in a vote of 600-plus party activists.

But the appointment has been criticized by Democrats and moderate Republicans because Kline received 41 percent of the vote statewide in his race against Morrison and only 35 percent in Johnson County.

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