Ethics Commission: Herzet Contributions Didn’t Violate Law

By Lee White

The Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission has ruled that there was insufficient evidence of probable cause that Butler County Sheriff Kelly Herzet intentionally violated campaign finance statutes alleged in a complaint I filed in November. Click here to read the original blog post about the complaint, which contains much of the evidence I presented to the commission.

The complaint (click here to read it) alleged that Herzet had accepted in-kind — or merchandise — contributions that were improperly made in the names of owners, family members, and employees of Graphic Concepts, Inc. It also alleged that Herzet’s campaign finance report did not list the occupations of the contributors, which it clearly did not (see above). Finally, the complaint alleged that Herzet accepted an aggregate amount from a person that exceeded the $500 legal limit. The total of contributions from individuals connected with Graphic Concepts was $3,500.

Naturally, I’m disappointed in the commission’s decision. I believe there certainly was enough evidence that the occupations of the contributors were not listed on the campaign finance report form. The spaces to report their occupations were, as you can see, left blank. I also believe I presented enough evidence from Herzet’s and Graphic Concepts’ own Facebook pages to show that at least some of the in-kind contributions “more probably than not” — which is a good definition of “probable cause” — came from Graphic Concepts itself and not from the individual contributors listed on Herzet’s report.

I believe the evidence also showed that Herzet knew at least some of the merchandise came from Graphic Concepts and that Graphic Concepts knew it and not individual family members or employees provided it. Consider the Facebook image (below) submitted to the ethics commission, which Graphic Concepts captioned, “A little bit of campaign items Sheriff Herzet ordered from us!” It shows the truck wrap that Herzet’s report claims came from Spencer Owens.

It doesn’t bother me that Sheriff Herzet won’t get it trouble as a result of the complaint’s being dismissed. I am concerned, however, that this case will embolden corporations to give other candidates in-kind contributions in the names of employees, relatives, or even people with no connection whatsoever to the businesses.

At least some of these statutes alleged to have been violated in my complaint required that the candidate or contributors “knowingly” committed the violations. Maybe that was why the commission made the decision that it did. If the laws are indeed that weak, the Kansas Legislature needs to fix them. Otherwise, after reading about this case, it won’t be long before political operatives from every corner of the map set up sham corporations to funnel as many truck wraps, signs, and flyers as they wish to campaigns big and small.

The ethics commission, by law, considers this matter confidential. Clearly, I do not. I believe this case reveals a serious deficiency in Kansas campaign finance law — one that could easily be exploited by any party or candidate, even a “fringe” one. That is why I’m publishing a blog post about it and including documentation related to the complaint.

I hope somebody in the Legislature will see that the statutes need to be rewritten. What happened in a small-town sheriff’s race may be of little statewide consequence, but the same scenario that played out here could easily occur in a governor’s race. Do the Republicans, who hold the governor’s office and majorities in both houses of the Legislature, really believe the Democrats or some fringe element won’t try something similar? Or are the Republicans willing to bet their appointees on the ethics commission will somehow find probable cause if they file a complaint?