Politics & Government

Senate president Wagle endorses Kobach in official email. Is it an ethics violation?

Senate President Susan Wagle looks on at the state Capitol in Topeka, Kan., Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. (Thad Allton/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP)
Senate President Susan Wagle looks on at the state Capitol in Topeka, Kan., Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. (Thad Allton/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP) AP

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle’s office is seeking clarification from ethics officials about whether the office violated a state law against using public resources for campaigning when she endorsed Kris Kobach for governor using an official email account.

Wagle’s endorsement came Wednesday morning from her office’s press email account, and was on her Senate letterhead, which says “Office of the Senate President.”

Kansas law prohibits state officers or employees from using public funds, time, equipment or supplies to “expressly advocate” the nomination or election of a candidate.

“If it is (a violation), we take full responsibility for it, but we weren’t intending to violate any ethics laws,” said Harrison Hems, Wagle’s chief of staff.

Hems and Wagle spokeswoman Shannon Golden said they had reached out to the Kansas Ethics Commission for clarification about the law.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said it was inappropriate for Wagle to send out the endorsement through an official email address.

“Anytime you do political endorsements, you do it without using any sort of state equipment,” Hensley said.

In the past, the Kansas Republican Party has taken a hard stance against the use of official email for campaign purposes by public school teachers.

In 2016, the party asked its members to inform the party if they received political emails from school district employees on their official addresses and warned about potential ethics law violations.

Kansas Ethics Commission director Mark Skoglund said in general the law prohibits express advocacy of candidates using state resources but also pointed to a list of particular words and phrases in the law that define what it means to expressly advocate for a candidate.

Kansas law lists nine examples, including “vote for…”; “re-elect your…”; “cast your ballot for the republican challenger…”

The word “endorse” is not among the examples given, but the law says express advocacy is not limited to the phrases given as examples.

Wagle’s endorsement – a two-paragraph statement – calls Kobach, the secretary of state, the “strongest conservative” in the Republican race for governor.

“I am proud to endorse Kris Kobach and I ask my fellow Republicans to stand with the candidate who best reflects Kansas values,” Wagle, R-Wichita, says in the statement.

The endorsement came less than two weeks before the Aug. 7 primary election. Kobach is running against Gov. Jeff Colyer, Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer and former state senator Jim Barnett for the Republican nomination.

Wagle fought often with former Gov. Sam Brownback over budget policy while Colyer was lieutenant governor.

Colyer spokeswoman Kara Fullmer said Colyer “looks forward to working with Senator Wagle after leading the Republican party to victory in the general election.”

Colyer’s campaign on Wednesday announced endorsements by several Republican members of the Kansas State Board of Education.

Donald Trump Jr. comes to Wichita to stump for Kansas gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach during a fundraising dinner at Noah's Event Venue in northeast Wichita Tuesday.