Splintering of prominent conservative political firm lights short fuse
by Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector
Topeka — The Kansas Legislature’s end-of-session avalanche of votes was disrupted by an abrupt attempt to force out the state ethics commission’s executive director, allegations of a pay-to-play Medicaid maneuver and fallout from an unusual lawsuit pitting Republican political consultants against each other.
Action under the dome before adjournment early Saturday included Republican lawmakers’ surprise attempt to write into state law a requirement the executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission hold a Kansas license to practice law. The target of their ire was executive director Mark Skoglund, the top regulator of legislators’ campaign finance activities who fell out of favor among some Republicans.
The final hours also featured disclosure the ethics commission issued subpoenas to GOP legislators and political operatives, including the Kansas Chamber, as part of an investigation into political action committees tied to conservative causes and legislators.
The subpoenas seek documentation of written exchanges with PACs and individuals, potentially in search of evidence PACs coordinated with campaigns. There is bipartisan dread the subpoenas were a consequence of a lawsuit and bitter end of the long partnership of Singularis Group founders Kristian Van Meteren and Jared Suhn, who specialize in serving Republicans.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, who didn’t talk about how many of his GOP colleagues received subpoenas, said the Kansas Constitution made clear legislators couldn’t be subjected to the civil legal process during the legislative session. In other words, the ethics commission had no business sending subpoenas to House members while they were performing their official duties.
“There’s no way any member could be lawfully subpoenaed by the ethics commission at this time,” Ryckman said.
Attorneys Ryan Kriegshauser and Joshua Ney, who represent Suhn in the dispute with Van Meteren, accused the ethics commission’s executive director of misrepresenting his legal credentials in a separate campaign finance case involving a mayoral race in Johnson County.
GOP lawmakers proposed a law be passed requiring the commission’s executive director to have a valid law license. Ney, who also represents the Johnson County residents in hot water with the ethics commission, filed a document that said the law license of the commission’s director, Skoglund, expired years ago. During a recent hearing on the Johnson County case, Skoglund didn’t immediately correct for the record a statement that he had a Kansas license in good standing.
Senate President Ty Masterson said the must-be-an-attorney reform was necessary because Skoglund had essentially “weaponized” the regulatory body responsible for enforcing ethics and campaign law. Lawmakers have complained Skoglund’s work on subpoenas was initiated after the Legislature declined to show interest in Skoglund’s reform legislation.
On Friday, six members of the state ethics commission said in a joint statement the partisan attempt to change hiring requirements of the executive director was motivated by an unwarranted desire to get Skoglund fired.
It’s a move that commissioners said ought to be “deeply concerning” to Kansans.
“We wholly support executive director Skoglund and staunchly oppose this effort to undermine the governmental ethics commission,” commissioners said.
Much remains unknown about the Kansas political firestorm related to subpoenas, lobbying activity, campaign finance expenditures, the ethics commission and the lawsuit.
But the Van Meteren and Suhn dispute offers a glimpse at how conflict can spiral out of control when money, ego and revenge delved into legal and political proceedings.
The lawsuit began when Van Meteren bought out Suhn in 2019 following contentious negotiations. Van Meteren subsequently alleged Suhn violated a noncompete clause in their agreement. Suhn had established a new firm, Game Changer Strategies. Van Meteren insisted his former business partner recruited clients that had business relationships with Singularis.
In effect, the work of Suhn for influential clients could leave Van Meteren with a less-valuable company, which has emphasized direct mail work for GOP candidates and organizations.
“I will not sign onto any agreement that does not include an ironclad noncompete for the firm’s graphic design, print, mail and digital lines of business and an equally ironclad non-solicit for the firm’s clients, staff and vendors,” Van Meteren said in an email to Suhn before the deal was struck.
“I will not negotiate with someone who continually moves the goalposts and tries to leave 40 windows unlocked so he can come back and steal back what I would be buying from him. Only a fool would buy a car and let the seller keep a set of keys,” Van Meteren said.
After departing Singularis in September 2019, Suhn was hired in October 2019 by the Republican House Campaign Committee to perform political consulting in the 2020 election cycle. In 2021, Van Meteren filed suit against Suhn. The case has yet to be resolved in district court.
During a House-Senate conference committee meeting, Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, challenged on procedural and policy grounds a GOP recommendation to insert into a bill the prohibition against employing an ethics commission executive director without a law license in good standing. Under the proposal, the individual would need to have had a license for three years as of July 1.
Skoglund said his license was suspended since 2015 because he chose not to keep up with continuing education requirements. He’s held the job since 2017.
Miller said it was against the Legislature’s rules to fold into a House-Senate conference report the executive director reform language because the issue had never before properly considered by the House or Senate.
He said consideration of the idea amid reports of legislators being subpoenaed by the ethics commission made the proposal appear shady.
“I’ve been hearing rumors now for the better part of probably a month that there are some 30 subpoenas issued to elected members. I find it very unnerving, to say the least,” Miller said. “I will say there are rumors; I have no facts. But there are significant enough rumors that relate directly to the underlying concept of this legislation that I bring it up. The timing is wrong for a matter of this kind of significance. But I particularly think this proposal, the timing is all wrong, given what I’ve been hearing.”
On Thursday and Friday, a sharp-tongued Democrat alleged an underhanded campaign-donation scheme to gain traction for controversial Medicaid legislation. The bill would block Gov. Laura Kelly from renegotiating the $4 billion contract with managed-care companies unless she won re-election in November.
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, objected to a proposal offered by Sen. Kelli Warren, a Republican candidate for attorney general, to put into law a prohibition on rebidding the contract until early 2023.
Kelly is seeking reelection and the current attorney general, Derek Schmidt, is the presumptive GOP nominee for governor.
Carmichael made reference to an FBI inquiry into the KanCare contract decisions nearly 10 years ago during the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback. There were assertions then that Brownback loyalists engaged in a pay-to-play operation during selection of three contractors for a Medicaid program now serving about 500,000 elderly, disabled and low-income Kansans. That federal investigation didn’t result in indictments.
Carmichael suggested history could be repeating itself.
“Sadly,” Carmichael said, “the same rumors are circulating today that there are subpoenas flying around in this Statehouse. It is a violation of federal law for lobbyists to induce legislators to introduce legislation concerning the Medicaid program with promises of campaign contributions.”
He said it was implausible anyone would hand KanCare companies a no-bid, $4 billion contract extension unless “somebody’s palm was getting greased by lobbyists with money.”
Warren, sitting across the room from Carmichael, didn’t comment on the representative’s outburst. Rep. Brad Ralph, R-Dodge City, said he was compelled to respond to Carmichael.
“I think it’s incredibly reckless to discuss pay-to-play or cast aspersions in regard to peoples’ motivation, particularly in this room,” Ralph said. “Personally, I take offense to that.”
Carmichael wasn’t through. While offering no proof of his claim, the Democrat said he had circumstantial evidence the pay-to-play was being conducted at “a higher level” than legislators. He said House and Senate members were being used as “pawns.”
“You should not expect a retraction from this representative,” Carmichael said.
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