Panel probes whether house speaker broke Kansas ethics law

TOPEKA | The state ethics commission is investigating a Democratic legislator's complaint that a Republican leader violated a Kansas law against nepotism in governmental hiring.

But House Speaker Mike O'Neal, a Hutchinson Republican, said he had nothing to do with his wife, Cindy, getting hired this year as a liaison to the House's GOP caucus when he became speaker. She was hired by the House majority leader's office, he said.

"I didn't do anything wrong," O'Neal told the Lawrence Journal-World. "I have a clean conscience about it, so does Cindy and so does the majority leader's office."

The ethics commission made Crow's complaint against O'Neal public Wednesday, after it had a closed meeting to hear from a three-member subcommittee about it.

The complaint against O'Neal was filed with the Governmental Ethics Commission in March by Rep. Marti Crow, a Leavenworth Democrat. It accuses O'Neal of "advocating or causing" a transfer of employment and "participating in an action" related to his wife's employment, but is not more specific.

The commission plans to have a hearing March 13. If it concludes that O'Neal violated the law, it could fine him up to $5,000.

The complaint said, "This is a clear violation of the Kansas laws regarding nepotism."

Mike O'Neal has served 25 years in the House, and Cindy O'Neal has worked for the Legislature during its annual sessions for 21 years. Before he became speaker this year, she was secretary to the House Judiciary Committee, and he was its chairman.

Mike O'Neal said his wife was hired by Peter Freund, chief of staff for House Majority Leader Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican.

The House speaker said he has no supervisory authority over his wife and that he obtained legal opinions that Freund's hiring of her didn't violate the law.