AP: GOP lawmaker's reimbursement raises eyebrows

12/8/2012

TOPEKA (AP) — When incoming Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick had leftover campaign funds at the end of 2011 and no legal way to spend them on political activities or for personal use, he still pocketed $14,464 and said he was reimbursing himself for a decade's worth of communications expenses, records show.

TOPEKA (AP) — When incoming Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick had leftover campaign funds at the end of 2011 and no legal way to spend them on political activities or for personal use, he still pocketed $14,464 and said he was reimbursing himself for a decade's worth of communications expenses, records show.

A state Republican Party official acknowledged that to some Kansans the move perhaps "just doesn't seem right," but is probably legal. Carol Williams, the state Governmental Ethics Commission's executive director, said Merrick's action would pass muster if he can properly document his past expenses.

Merrick spent a decade in the House before accepting an appointment to the Senate to replace Jeff Colyer after Colyer was elected lieutenant governor in 2010. Candidates can't use campaign funds to cover purely personal expenses, and the Kansas Supreme Court had ruled previously that state law prohibited candidates who raised money for one office from transferring it to a campaign for another office. Merrick could have given leftover House campaign funds back to contributors, donated them to charity or, as he did, reimbursed himself for expenses associated with campaigning or holding office.

The Topeka Capital-Journal reports (http://bit.ly/UqRHJh ) that Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, reported reimbursing himself for telephone, cell phone, fax and Internet service expenses from Jan. 1, 2000, through Dec. 31, 2010. The money came from Merrick's dormant House campaign fund when Merrick was serving in the Senate.

"That sounds like one that if the public looks at it just doesn't seem right," said Clay Barker, the Kansas Republican Party's executive director. "But I know having worked with ethics quite a bit, that there are some areas with a very 'bright line' rule. As long as you stay on the correct side, you can come up with a result that is legal, and the Legislature's candidates all know what those rules are."

Merrick's House campaign committee disclosed the reimbursement in a report filed with the secretary of state's office in January 2012 and attached a two-page spreadsheet listing monthly totals for telephone, cell phone, fax and Internet expenses from 2001 through 2010. A note says Merrick sought reimbursement for 60 percent of his total expenses of $24,107, although it didn't explain that percentage.

The incoming House speaker did not discuss his actions with The Topeka Capital-Journal and declined to comment Thursday to The Associated Press.

Several donors said they weren't bothered by the reimbursement.

"I don't have any complaints about Ray," said Niels Hansen, an Overland Park firearms dealer and gunsmith. "He's an honest guy. He works at what he was elected to do."

Merrick decided not to seek a full term in the Senate after three federal judges redrew the state's political boundaries this year and placed Merrick in the same district as Sen. Pat Apple, a Louisburg Republican. Instead, Merrick is returning to the House, and fellow Republicans there chose him to replace retiring Speaker Mike O'Neal, of Hutchinson, when lawmakers open their 2013 session next month.

Williams said Merrick's reimbursements could be acceptable "if he has documentation."

Lynn Hellebust, executive director of the ethics commission when it was formed in the 1970s, said a formal audit would be required to examine Merrick's expenses.

"But if they're not doing any audits, that's just hanging out there," Hellebust said.

The ethics commission has two auditors, but Williams said in September that the agency would have to cut one if it were forced to cut its spending by 10 percent. Gov. Sam Brownback's administration directed state agencies to propose such cuts, saying it was for planning purposes, but the state now faces a budget shortfall for the fiscal year beginning in July 2013.

Meanwhile, the last report filed by Merrick's Senate campaign fund, in January 2012, showed a balance of $54,665. A follow-up report, disclosing contributions and expenditures for this year, must be filed in January 2013.

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