Politics & Government

Democrats demand speaker's exit from lawsuit

TOPEKA — Democrats in the Kansas House demanded Wednesday that the Republican speaker remove himself and his law firm from a lawsuit against the state, threatening "formal action" if he doesn't comply.

Six Democrats sent a letter to Speaker Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, criticizing him for representing businesses, trade groups and insurance funds in the lawsuit. House Minority Leader Paul Davis, of Lawrence, one of the six, said Democrats are considering filing a complaint to force the House to investigate what they believe is a conflict of interest.

O'Neal dismissed the attacks on him as "very partisan" and said Democrats have yet to show him a law or rule suggesting his involvement in the lawsuit is improper.

He filed the lawsuit in January in Shawnee County District Court for 17 clients, challenging a financial move used last year to help balance the state budget. Most of O'Neal's clients are industry workers' compensation funds, but they include the Kansas Bankers Association, the Kansas Realtors Association and a Wichita company doing business as Speedy Cash.

"Your clients are some of the most influential special interest groups in Kansas politics and have business before the Legislature regularly," the Democrats' letter said. "This is about propriety and public trust."

O'Neal repeatedly has disputed the idea that representing clients in the lawsuit creates conflicts of interest from him as the House's top leader. He said Democrats can't show any specific instance of him using his power as speaker to help the clients bringing the lawsuit.

"I've kept the legislative and the legal sides of this separate," O'Neal said. "They really don't have any legal or ethical basis for this."

The lawsuit attacks the Legislature's decision to confiscate unused funds in various accounts set aside for specific regulatory purposes and divert them to general government programs.

O'Neal's clients paid fees deposited in special accounts that had $5 million swept out of them. The lawsuit argues the state exceeded its regulatory authority and imposed an unauthorized tax on businesses and individuals paying into the special accounts.

The Democrats' letter said O'Neal's contract with his clients should be made public. O'Neal has said he's being paid hourly — and below his usual rate — but has declined to provide further details, saying it would violate his clients' confidences.

Davis said Democrats also are considering filing complaints with the state Board for Discipline of Attorneys or the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.

If Democrats filed a complaint with the House, Speaker Pro Tem Arlen Siegfreid, R-Olathe, would be required to appoint a committee of three Republicans and three Democrats to examine it. Censuring or removing a House member takes a two-thirds majority.

But the GOP holds a 79-46 majority in the House, making sanctions against O'Neal unlikely. Democrats in both chambers have criticized O'Neal for several weeks, and some Republicans are skeptical Democrats really intend to lodge a complaint somewhere.

"They're milking it," said House Majority Leader Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell. "It's a gigantic waste of everybody's time."

But Davis said Democrats haven't filed a complaint yet because "We're trying to give the speaker every opportunity to do the right thing."