Panel clears Speaker O’Neal of ethical complaint

mikeonealKansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal broke no ethical rules by taking on legal clients in a lawsuit against the state and should face no punishment, a legislative panel concluded today.

But the panel, made up of three Democrats and three Republicans, recommended that lawmakersthe Legislature should rewrite ethics rules to prevent legislator-attorneys from doing the same thing in the future.

After meeting for more than an hour behind closed doors the committee voted to dismiss the ethical complaint filed against O’Neal by top House Democrats. The vote was unanimous.

Both sides claimed a share of victory. O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican, said he hopes the Legislature can move on now that he’s been cleared of any misconduct.

“It should have been dismissed out-of-hand,” O’Neal said of the complaint after the panel made its announcement. “It was intentionally hurtful and I resent that.”

But House Minority Leader Paul Davis noted the panel’s recommendation that legislative ethics rules be revised.

“The committee issued a very strong statement that the kind of conduct the Speaker is engaged in should not be permitted,” Davis said.

In political terms, the panel’s conclusion should remove the ethical clouds that swirled about O’Neal as he sought to lead the House through an unprecedented state budget crisis. But O’Neal’s critics (in both parties) aren’t likely to view Tuesday’s decision as a vindication.

The complaint stemmed from O’Neal’s work as an attorney representing a coalition of business groups in a lawsuit against the state.

The suit challenges a 2009 legislative decision – which O’Neal opposed – to take funds from professional regulatory bodies to balance the state budget. O’Neal’s clients – the Kansas Bankers Association and the Kansas Association of Realtors, among others – pay dues that support the regulatory bodies.

Davis, a Lawrence Democrat, and other top House Democrats maintain that O’Neal’s work creates a conflict of interest. They say it’s improper for the top House lawmaker to work directly for special interest groups with business before the Legislature.

O’Neal denied any wrongdoing and notes that he followed all legislative ethical rules, which say legislator-attorneys may challenge legislative actions in the court if they 1) voted against the action and 2) issued a formal protest.

During testimony before the panel last week, he accused Democrats of character assassination.