TOPEKA — The Governmental Ethics Commission fined Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach's campaign $5,000 on Wednesday for mistakes in filing expense and contribution reports for the 2010 election.
The commission voted 7-2 to impose the maximum fine after questioning Kobach's campaign treasurer, state Rep. Tom Arpke of Salina. The ethics staff that investigates complaints and reports to the commission had recommended a fine of $750.
The complaint and subsequent fine stemmed from an audit that found the campaign omitted about $35,000 in contributions and nearly $43,000 in spending from reports filed for the 2010 campaign.
Kobach said he was surprised that the commission rejected the recommendation of the nonpartisan staff and made the decision appear political. The Republican cited a 1999 ruling against former GOP Gov. Bill Graves, who was fined $1,000 for making similar campaign reporting errors.
"The proportionate fine would have been close to what they assessed the Graves campaign," Kobach said. "The only real distinction I can see is that I'm a conservative and he's a moderate."
Commission Chairwoman Sabrina Standifer said the maximum fine was imposed, in part, because the Kobach campaign maintained that it reported the omissions to ethics officials.
"The commission does not condone lack of candor before the commission," Standifer said. "This is in no way, shape or form self-reporting."
Carol Williams, executive director of the commission, testified Wednesday that it was commission staff that first took the matter to the Kobach campaign. She said Arpke later conducted a full audit of the campaign's expenditures and contributions that had been omitted.
The commission did, however, say that Arpke was cooperative during the investigation and helped determine how much money had not been properly accounted.
"I think I was above board," Arpke said. "I think I gave them everything they asked for."
Democrats have been critical of Kobach and the campaign finance violations, saying that the reports raise doubts about his competence and his commitment to following the state's requirements. The secretary of state is the chief elections officer in Kansas.
"The commission has been very clear that people who accept public money for campaigns need to take care of it. The Kobach campaign didn't and they got fined and that's the way it goes," said Kansas Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon. "Maybe this will get Mr. Kobach's attention now."
Kobach defeated Democratic incumbent Chris Biggs with 59 percent of the vote in 2010. The campaign has said previously that it would pay any fine levied against Arpke for the violations.
This is the second time Kobach has been associated with problems in campaign finance reports in recent years.
In June, after a two-year review, the Federal Election Commission found that the Kansas Republican Party had committed three violations of federal campaign finance laws in 2007 and 2008, when Kobach was chairman.
The audit cited flawed record-keeping and reporting, but Kobach described the problems as technical.
The commission and officials from Kobach's campaign noted Wednesday that then-Republican Gov. Bill Graves' re-election campaign faced questions about the same kind of inadvertent mistakes on its reports from 1998.
The ethics commission fined Graves' treasurer $1,000 the following year, after his campaign corrected reports to include nearly $228,000 in contributions it had omitted, out of $2.8 million raised.
The maximum fine Graves could have faced was $5,000, Kobach said, suggesting that politics played a role in his case.
"That's concerning to me because it suggests there's an anti-conservative bias," he said.
Kobach raised almost $328,000 for his campaign, starting in 2008, and loaned himself another $48,000. He spent about $335,000.
A campaign treasurer, not the candidate, is held responsible for omissions or mistakes in a finance report under Kansas law. But Kobach said that the campaign will pay it for Arpke. Kobach said none of the omissions were intentional and that Arpke was "diligent" as treasurer.
Arpke described the campaign as "chaotic" and noted that matters became particularly complicated during a July appearance by Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
The event was interrupted by a bomb scare that prompted hundreds of supporters to flee the convention hall. Many left their contributions with campaign staff but weren't able to fill out the paperwork with all the confusion, Arpke said.
"The bomb scare is one example but it doesn't explain all of (the omissions)," he said.
The source of the ethics complaint is not clear. Williams, the ethic commission director, said confidentiality laws prevented her from disclosing who brought the matter forward.
Williams agreed that Arpke had worked hard to reconcile the finance reports with the records of Kobach's campaign.