Topeka — An investigative committee looking into an allegation of misconduct against Kansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, has waded into questions about conflicts of interest that sometimes surround legislators and their outside work.
Should a teacher-legislator vote on school funding? How about a farmer-legislator on agricultural issues?
House Democratic Leader Paul Davis, of Lawrence, who along with other House Democratic leaders brought the complaint against O’Neal, told the committee last week that those situations are acceptable. But, he added, that they are a far cry from what O’Neal is doing.
O’Neal is the most powerful legislator in the House, and as an attorney, he is representing some of the most powerful special interests in Kansas in a lawsuit challenging a legislative action from last year, Davis said in a two-hour discussion last week with the investigative panel.
“He is suing the very body that he leads, over a vote he presided over and that he lost,” said Davis.
O’Neal is scheduled to testify before the committee on Tuesday. He says the complaint against him is a partisan attack, and that he has done nothing wrong. There is nothing that bars attorneys serving in the Legislature from representing clients in lawsuits against the state. His lawsuit was filed on behalf of businesses, trade groups and insurance funds; it challenges the Legislature’s taking of fees paid by the groups for regulatory purposes to help balance the state budget.
The committee, which is made up of three Republicans and three Democrats, can decide to dismiss the complaint, or recommend a range of disciplinary actions from reprimand to expelling O’Neal from office. Such a complaint-driven investigation in the House hasn’t taken place since 1951.
In questioning Davis, Republicans on the committee asked Davis what specific rule or law he thought O’Neal had violated. There is no definition of misconduct in the House rules.
Davis said O’Neal’s actions have the appearance of impropriety and have cast the entire House in a bad public light. He made an analogy, saying that if an attorney-legislator had been the lead attorney for the coalition of schools that sued the state for increased school funding, that would not be tolerated.
“It would be extremely inappropriate,” he said.