The most interesting part of today’s Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission meeting was the public hearing for a complaint against Kristian Van Meteren. A Meadowlark article last month gave the background in 1st Amendment Constitutional Right may become issue … Silence the accuser? Briefly, Van Meteren was accused of breaking confidentiality after filing a complaint with the Ethics Commission.
This complaint against Van Meteren is over a case for which there is no public information that can be reviewed, since the Commission chose to take no action on Van Meteren’s complaint against Senator Umbarger. Instead of citing Senator Umbarger for misuse of his campaign funds, the Ethics Commission is taking a chilling action against the individual bringing the complaint. See Did Senator Umbarger violate ethics rules buying a carport with campaign money? Umbarger clairvoyant?
The Ethics Commission’s case against Van Meteren was detailed in six exhibits:
1. Complaint filed by Kris Van Meteren on Sept. 8, 2008. The back side of this form cited the confidentiality conditions that Van Meteren was accused of violating.
2. Letter by Carol Williams, Ethics Commission Executive Director, dated Sept. 18, 2008 confirming receipt of the complaint, and mentioning confidential nature of the complaint.
3. Kansas Liberty article, New campaign finance charges leveled against Umbarger, Oct 15, 2008, and an affidavit by author Phil LaCerte, Kansas Liberty, with information about an E-mail correspondence with Van Meteren. LaCerte was complying with a subpoena from the Ethics Commission.
4. Handwritten memo from redacted source, dated Oct 17, 2008, to Carol Williams, with information about the Kansas Liberty article.
5. Topeka Capital-Journal article, Ethics inquiry examines spending from senator’s campaign account, Oct 19, 2008 by Tim Carpenter. I am confused why the official exhibit redacted the names whenever Sen. Dwayane Umbarger was mentioned.
6. Letter from Kristian D. Van Meteren. In response to Carol Williams for a statement about the case against him, Van Meteren gave this statement:
“Many members of my family have served in this nation’s military throughout its history, including several who died to guarantee me the rights enumerated in the Constitution of the United States.
I will neither dishonor their service nor cheapen the rights they died to secure for me by surrendering my right to free political speech, simply to avoid the misdemeanor charge and civil fines you threaten to impose on me.”
Van Meteren’s attorney, Ryan Kriegshauser, objected to several of the exhibits as being hearsay, and later presented a brief as to why the Kansas Law was unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution. Kriegshauser moved for a dismissal of charges.
Kriegshauser cited a 10th U.S. Circuit Court decision that binding a complaintant to confidentiality was unconstitutional and the state had the burden to prove the interest of the state needed the confidentiality. Kriegshauser explained keeping information confidiential to protect a political figure did not take away one’s 1st amendment right.
Commissioner John Solbach challenged Kriegshauser that Van Meteren had submitted to the complaint process and therefore was bound to the confidentiality. Kriegshauser said that Van Meteren had the constitutional right to freedom of speech and the burden of proof and interest of the state needed to be made by the commission.
Chairwoman Sabrina Standifer cited a Kansas Appeals Court case about the need for confidentialy in their investigations. Kriegshauser said he had addressed this case in his brief and challenged the commission to make a compelling case to deny Van Meteren’s 1st Amendment rights. Kriegshauser said courts had ruled that protecting the reputations of legislators, judges, or attorneys was not a compelling reason and challenged the Ethics commission to find a compelling reason.
Commissioner John Solbach implied that the workings of the commission trumped free speech but Kriegshauser disagreed and cited a New Jersey Supreme Court case to justify his position. Kriegshauser invited the Commission to look at the cases cited in his brief and cautioned them their current course of action would be a “weighty” thing.
Van Meteren did not testify on his behalf.
After an approximate 30 minute closed executive session, Chairwoman Standifer announced the Commission would take all the evidence, the brief, and the motion under advisement, and that deliberations would continue at the Feb. 18 meeting. At that time they would issue a report of their findings of fact and determination of law.
In other business at the Ethics Commission, new Minority Leader Paul Davis and the new Speaker of the House Michael O’Neal exchanged introductions with the Commission, and discussed some legislative matters that might affect the Commission.
Two other scheduled public hearings on complaints against two women’s political groups did not occur. The groups were:
- Sedgwick County Republican Women
- Capital Area Federation of Women’s Democratic Club
Oddly, these complaints were about reports that are not even published online. The political money involved with more than 25 political women’s groups is not online at present, and one must make a trip to the Secretary of State’s office to review these reports. However, a member of the Ethics Commission’s staff indicated these groups in general do not have much money.
After discussions that the elderly treasurers of these groups did not understand the gravity of the complaints against them, the Commission withdrew the complaints since both groups had taken appropriate actions to submit their reports, and there would be no purpose served in punishing these elderly women.
Carol Williams, the Ethics Commission Executive Director, said five individuals are still delinquent on their Statements of Substantial Interest forms.
Commentary: The Ethics Commission badly needs more transparency, which I have written about before. Kansas Law needs to be modified to provide this transparency.
I understand the need for confidentiality during an investigation, but there doesn’t seem to be any final check and balance on the actions, or inactions, by the Commission. Unless there is a hearing, there is no public information about any complaint. The Public cannot see what the Commission is doing, or not doing, when there is no information about complaints available for public inspection unless there is a hearing. If someone participates in an Ethics investigation, there is no way to find if the Ethics Commission properly understood and acted on the information given to the Commission.
- Fines and other actions by the Ethics Commission at their December meeting, Kansas Meadowlark, Dec 18, 2008.
- We need more transparency in the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission, Kansas Meadowlark, Oct 23, 2008.
- Did Senator Umbarger violate ethics rules buying a carport with campaign money? Umbarger clairvoyant?, Kansas Meadowlark, Aug 7, 2008.