Topeka — House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, has repeatedly denied having anything to do with the hiring of his wife, Cindy O’Neal, as a staff member to the newly created House Republican Caucus.
But a memo from House Majority Leader Ray Merrick indicates Speaker O’Neal’s office was involved in hiring the caucus staff.
Mike O’Neal faces a complaint before the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission that he violated the state’s nepotism law by assisting in getting his wife the job. He has denied any wrongdoing, saying that Cindy O’Neal was hired by Merrick’s chief of staff Peter Freund, and that her salary comes out of Merrick’s office.
In a Jan. 6 memo titled “Hire of Caucus Staff,” from Merrick, R-Stilwell, to Jeffrey Russell, who is director of Legislative Administrative Services, Merrick says, “My office with the assistance of the Speaker’s office will be hiring a caucus staff: Wade Hopgood, Media and Communications Director, Jenna Keesling, Legislative Policy Director, and Cindy O’Neal Caucus Liaison.”
The start date for the new caucus staff was stated by Merrick as Jan. 5, the day previous to the memo’s date.
In the memo, Merrick explains that Hopgood and Keesling will be full-time while Cindy O’Neal will work full-time until July 1 and then become part-time. “The portions of salaries coming from the Speaker’s office budget are given in the accompanying memorandum from the Speaker’s office,” the Merrick memo states.
A memo from O’Neal explains salary increases for two staffers and how they will be paid out.
In addition, the memo states, “Cindy O’Neal’s annual salary will be $27,000 as set by the Majority Leader’s Office, effective January 5th.”
In follow-up memos written two days later by Merrick and O’Neal to Russell, both legislators stated that Cindy O’Neal’s salary would come entirely from Merrick’s budget.
A state law prohibits state officers from “directly employing, appointing, promoting, transferring or advancing family members” into a state post.
A public hearing on the complaint against Speaker O’Neal is scheduled for May 13. If the Ethics Commission finds that O’Neal violated the nepotism law, he could face a fine of up to $5,000.
On Thursday, Speaker O’Neal said the memo doesn’t conflict with his assertions.
“This doesn’t change anything that I’ve said or any of the facts,” he said.
“I did not advocate for, nor did I participate in the decision to hire Cindy,” he said, adding that he had nothing to do with setting her salary. He said when Merrick wrote that the speaker’s office was assisting with the hiring of a caucus staff, that meant that he and Merrick agreed there would be a “shared staff.”