Secretary of State Kris Kobach criticized for forming PAC

? Secretary of State Kris Kobach faced bipartisan criticism Monday for forming his own political action committee, with legislators saying it is inappropriate for the state’s chief elections officer to move so openly toward involvement in others’ partisan campaigns.

But Kobach said the legislators are criticizing him because he’s a conservative Republican and haven’t spoken up when past Kansas secretaries of state have been involved in politics.

“The hypocrisy is amusing,” he said.

Kobach formed the Prairie Fire PAC on Feb. 15 and listed himself as chairman, according to an organization statement he signed and filed with the state Governmental Ethics Commission. The statement does not list an affiliation with any group and describes Prairie Fire as a “leadership PAC.”

Prairie Fire’s creation went unnoticed at the Statehouse until Monday, when The Associated Press saw Prairie Fire’s name on an online list of PACs maintained by the ethics commission. By forming a PAC, Kobach can raise funds and spend money on political activities outside his own campaign committee.

Kobach, a former law professor, is already a national figure in debates over illegal immigration because he helped draft tough new laws in Alabama and Arizona. He has endorsed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and drawn criticism from top legislative Democrats for serving as the honorary chairman of a GOP state Senate candidate’s campaign.

“This guy has consistently just gone over the line in terms of his partisan political activity,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat. “He ought to be unbiased and objective in terms of his responsibilities in office.”

The one-page form filed for Prairie Fire does not spell out how it intends to be involved in this year’s elections, but Hensley and other legislators said they presume Kobach will support fellow conservatives in Republican primaries in August and GOP candidates in the November general election.

Kobach said the PAC hasn’t raised any money and no decisions have been made about which candidates to support. However, he wouldn’t rule out having the PAC involved in GOP primaries in support of candidates “who are serious about fighting voter fraud.”

The secretary of state formed his PAC as legislators are considering his proposal to require people registering to vote for the first time in Kansas to prove their U.S. citizenship, starting June 15. Legislators enacted a proof-of-citizenship requirement last year but said it wouldn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2013.

Kobach contends the rule will prevent non-citizens from registering, and that it makes the most sense to have it in place before the normal surge of registrations before a presidential contest. Critics say the rule will suppress voting by young, poor, minority and elderly voters.

House Elections Committee Chairman Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican, said he’s less offended by Kobach forming a PAC than by existing PACs created by legislative leaders.

Schwab said Kobach’s PAC is attracting criticism because, “It’s a more polarizing figure this time.”

The Republican and Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate have fundraising committees that are part of their state political parties. Democrats in both chambers and Senate Republicans also have their own leadership PACs, formed before a 2000 state law banned the formation of new PACs by lawmakers.

The ban doesn’t apply to statewide elected officials, but most have not taken advantage of the loophole. Democrat Kathleen Sebelius formed a PAC as insurance commissioner and kept it as governor. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has the Road Map PAC, which, along with his campaign committee, is affiliated with a nonprofit group formed for possible independent

State Sen. John Vratil, a Leawood Republican, said forming a PAC goes against Kansans’ expectations that the secretary of state will be unbiased in overseeing elections.

“I think most people would say that’s inappropriate,” Vratil said.

But Schwab said that because secretaries of state are elected, they’ve been involved in politics for decades. Kobach noted that secretaries of state have overseen their own elections without complaints. Also, campaign finance records available online show that one of Kobach’s predecessors, Ron Thornburgh, made at least two small contributions to candidates directly while in office.

“Their criticism only extends to conservatives,” Kobach said of Hensley and Vratil.