Topeka — Former Attorney General Phill Kline didn't break the law when an employee used a state computer to copy e-mail addresses for use in Kline's failed re-election campaign last year, the state ethics commission ruled Wednesday.
Kline, now Johnson County's top prosecutor, avoided a fine, and the Governmental Ethics Commission dismissed a complaint against him from its staff. The complaint alleged that he had violated a law against using or causing someone else to use state equipment to "expressly advocate" the election or defeat of a candidate. The possible penalty was $5,000.
The commission's attorney argued that copying the list of addresses was the first step toward sending out a batch campaign e-mail in September 2006. But the commission, before the 6-0 vote dismissing the complaint, said the e-mail addresses were public records, available to anyone who asked, and a state computer provided the only access to them.
The commission heard testimony that an employee of the attorney general's office downloaded the list of addresses onto a portable hard drive he owned, then carried it to Kline's campaign headquarters. Campaign computers then were used to draft and send the batch e-mails.
"The commission listened to the factual scenario as it actually occurred," said Kline's attorney, Tuck Duncan, of Topeka. "They made it very clear - and we agree with them - if the campaign had drafted the e-mails or transmitted them on state equipment, that may indeed have been a violation."
The attorney general's office automatically collected the addresses when people signed up on its Web site for electronic updates on various issues, or if they filled out forms when someone from the office spoke to a group.
"To use those is not a violation in and of itself," commission Chairwoman Sabrina Standifer said. "I - or anyone else - can walk into the attorney general's office, and I can make a request for that information. Then an attorney general employee is going to have to use that computer."
Kline, who left the attorney general's office Jan. 8, didn't attend the commission's meeting. Afterward, spokesman Bob Murray said, "We're pleased and the decision speaks for itself."
It was the second time within a year that the commission considered a case involving Kline. In March 2006, it fined him $1,500 after he reported that a consultant hired by his campaign had inadvertently violated a law against soliciting lobbyists for campaign contributions.
However, it was the first time the commission has considered whether harvesting e-mail addresses electronically is an improper use of state equipment for campaign purposes.
"I'm disappointed, but it's up to the commission to interpret the law," said commission attorney Donna Voth.
However, Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said the law should be rewritten in response to the commission's decision.
"Clearly, when people are e-mailing state agencies, they're not expecting that person to turn their names into campaign lists," said Sawyer, the ranking Democrat on the House Elections and Governmental Organization Committee. "It's just wrong, if it technically violates the law or not. If it doesn't technically violate the law, we need to change the law."