Topeka A legislator who’s hoping to be elected Kansas’ top elections official was fined $5,000 on Tuesday by the state ethics commission for misusing campaign funds.
The penalty for state Sen. Chris Steineger, a Kansas City Democrat, was the maximum possible. He said the ethics violation resulted from an unintentional mistake and promised to pay the fine quickly.
The Governmental Ethics Commission concluded that Steineger violated a law restricting how campaign funds can be used. Twice last year, Steineger used his Senate campaign fund to pay for polls testing how well voters recognized his name for a potential run for statewide office.
Steineger is running against Secretary of State Chris Biggs in the Aug. 3 Democratic primary. Three Republicans also are running for the office.
Kansas law doesn’t allow a candidate to use money raised while running for one office on a campaign for another office. Ethics commission Chairwoman Sabrina Standifer, a Wichita attorney, noted that legislators have discussed rewriting the law in recent years but haven’t done it, making the issue familiar.
“It’s come up repeatedly before the Legislature,” she said after the commission’s meeting. “It’s not a new issue.”
After the meeting, Steineger emphasized in a statement that he was complying with the commission’s ruling and had cooperated with its staff.
“I made that mistake myself,” Steineger said during a hearing on his case. “I accept responsibility for the mistake.”
Steineger also accepted responsibility for a fundraising e-mail in February that went to 40 lobbyists, in violation of a law against soliciting contributions from registered lobbyists while the Legislature is in session.
But he said he had repeatedly directed his campaign finance manager to purge his e-mail list of lobbyists’ names. Standifer noted that under the law, the commission can’t fine candidates unless they knowingly violate the ban, and the commission concluded there wasn’t enough evidence of that in Steineger’s case.
Both allegations against Steineger were lodged by the commission’s executive director and outlined in a notice to him last month.
A report filed in January by Steineger’s Senate campaign showed that it paid the M.J. Ross Group Inc., of Portland, Ore., $1,888 in March 2009 and again in November 2009. Both times, the purpose of the spending was listed as “consulting.”
In late March, Steineger told the commission in a letter that the expenditures were for polling and, “I should have used personal funds.”
Steineger told the commission during Tuesday’s hearing that he had thought he had used personal funds. He also said he had believed using his Senate campaign to pay for the polls was acceptable because the polling included general questions about a potential voter’s views unrelated to any specific race.
In addition, he told commission members: “I think I just forgot at the time the bill was due. I picked up the wrong checkbook and wrote the wrong check.”