Topeka — A Democratic legislator called Friday for Kansas’ Republican House speaker to step down because he is representing businesses, trade groups and insurance funds in a lawsuit against the state.
State Rep. Marti Crow said Speaker Mike O’Neal has a conflict of interest on legislation affecting any of his 17 clients in the lawsuit. Both Crow and O’Neal are attorneys.
“He has created a situation where he can’t lead this body,” Crow, a Leavenworth Democrat, told The Associated Press. “I don’t know how he can carry out his duties.”
O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican, called Crow’s assertion “ludicrous.”
“If I got up in the morning worrying what the Democratic Party was up to, I wouldn’t get much done during the day,” O’Neal said.
The lawsuit, filed last month in Shawnee County District Court, challenges a financial maneuver used by the state last year to help erase a budget shortfall.
O’Neal already has faced strong criticism from the Legislature’s two Democratic minority leaders, Sen. Anthony Hensley of Topeka, and Rep. Paul Davis of Lawrence, who consider his involvement in the lawsuit improper. They’ve also suggested he stands to make hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees at the state’s expense, which O’Neal says is not true.
Crow has complained about O’Neal’s conduct before. Last year, she filed a nepotism complaint with the state ethics commission because the House Republican caucus hired O’Neal’s wife for a staff position. The ethics commission dismissed the complaint, saying the evidence did not show O’Neal was involved in the hiring.
“Gosh, Marti’s at it again,” said House Majority Leader Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican. “We seem to play a lot of gotcha politics here.”
The lawsuit attacks the Legislature’s decision to confiscate unused funds in various accounts set aside for specific regulatory purposes and divert them to general government programs, such as education and social services.
O’Neal’s clients paid fees deposited in special accounts that had $5 million swept out of them. The lawsuit argues the state exceeded its regulatory authority and imposed an unauthorized tax on businesses and individuals paying into the special accounts.
The lawsuit seeks to reverse last year’s action and prevent similar moves in the future.
“I realize that, for a time, it will be not the merits of the suit, but the guy who filed the suit, that gets the press,” O’Neal said.
Most of O’Neal’s clients are industry workers’ compensation funds. The sweep of an Insurance Department account led that agency to impose additional fees on them.
Other plaintiffs include the Kansas Bankers Association, the Kansas Realtors Association and a Wichita company doing business as Speedy Cash.
Crow said all the plaintiffs could have a stake in a wide range of legislation. For example, restaurants and bars oppose a proposal to restrict smoking statewide.
“He is the one who controls what happens on this side of the Capitol for legislation,” she said.
Democrats also have speculated that O’Neal would receive at least 30 percent of any returned funds if the Legislature’s action is reversed — $1.68 million or more.
O’Neal said he’s being paid by the hour, at less than his usual rate. He declined to release further details. He also said that before filing the lawsuit, he reviewed Kansas ethics laws and spoke informally with the state office that handles complaints against attorneys.
“I’ve practiced law now close to 40 years, and I do it ethically, and I don’t do anything without checking the rules,” O’Neal said.