Topeka The Kansas ethics commission dismissed a nepotism complaint Wednesday against House Speaker Mike O’Neal stemming from his wife’s hiring on the chamber’s leadership staff.
The commission voted 5-2 to dismiss the case. There was one abstention and one absence.
Commissioner John Solbach, a former legislator from Lawrence, said there was probable cause and the case needed to be heard, but the evidence didn’t suggest O’Neal played a role in the decision to hire his wife.
“When everything is considered, I don’t think we have clear and convincing evidence,” Solbach said.
Democratic Rep. Marti Crow of Leavenworth filed an ethics complaint in March against O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican who became speaker in January.
Crow claimed O’Neal played a role in the hiring of his wife, Cindy O’Neal, as an aide to the House GOP Caucus in violation of the state’s anti-nepotism law.
“The intent was never there,” Mike O’Neal said after the decision. “We would hope that our statutes would be interpreted in a way that is fair.”
House Majority Leader Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, and Peter Freund, his chief of staff, testified that Mike O’Neal never pressured them to hire his wife to serve as a liaison to the Republican caucus.
Much of the case was built on the fact that the speaker consulted with the director of the Kansas Revisor of Statutes, who assists in the writing of state legislation, and the director of the ethics commission. In both cases, O’Neal was told that his wife could work for House leadership if she was hired and paid by the majority leader or speaker pro tem, but not his office.
Freund said he waited to hire Cindy O’Neal until he received for a memo dated Dec. 18 from Mike O’Neal giving the “green light.” Freund and Merrick interviewed a handful of people before hiring the speaker’s wife to the post, which pays $27,000 a year.
Mike O’Neal said he sought such opinions because he knew if there was an ethics violation regarding his wife’s employment he would be brought up on charges, even if it was another official who hired his wife.