If House Speaker Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, is right in saying there is no rule or law to bar lawyer-legislators from representing parties in lawsuits against the state, the Legislature should pass one.
Not that it should be necessary to anticipate and prohibit such an action by a Kansas House speaker or one of the chamber's 124 other members.
O'Neal should have known it would look bad for him to be the lead attorney in a class-action lawsuit against the state with the potential to reap state dollars for his law practice.
That conclusion will stand, no matter what becomes of the ethics complaint filed by House Democratic leaders and the unprecedented House inquiry it has triggered.
It's beside the point that O'Neal, as a lawmaker, opposed the Legislature's 2009 decision to sweep money from professional regulatory funds to balance the state budget, effectively siding with his clients in the future lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state's actions.
The point is that O'Neal's dueling roles have left taxpayers to wonder whether he's representing them or his special interest clients, which include the Kansas Bankers Association, the Kansas Association of Realtors and Speedy Cash.
Worse, five of the 17 plaintiff organizations in the suit show up among O'Neal's campaign contributors, for a total $5,000 in donations over the past five years.
The ethics complaint is being investigated by a special six-member House panel chaired by Rep. Clark Shultz, R-Lindsborg, and including Rep. Nile Dillmore, D-Wichita. The committee decided Wednesday to proceed with its investigation and will hear today from House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence. O'Neal may testify next week.
"I do not intend to rush through this," Shultz said Wednesday.
That's appropriate. And if the panel can find a way to send a strong message to the speaker via final recommendations to the full House, it should.
Given the facts, surely there also should be at least a few Republicans willing to speak out about the speaker's actions — even if it is hard to imagine any serious sanctions passing the House, where Republicans hold a 76-49 majority.**
O'Neal, who has characterized the ethics complaint as "bizarre" and politically motivated, clearly doesn't get it. Nor did he get it last year when some found fault with the hiring of his wife as liaison to the House's Republican caucus (prompting an ethics complaint eventually rejected by the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission). But as the speaker of the Kansas House, O'Neal has more of a responsibility than his legislative colleagues to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
In general, whatever the ethics laws and rules applicable to their offices, public officials should ask themselves one simple question before they act: How will this look?
O'Neal either didn't ask the question or reached the wrong answer.
These numbers correct totals that were wrong in the original version of this editorial, published Thursday. Return to story.