Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Ethics official: Jones should have known campaign law

By CRYSTAL HERBER, Herald Staff Writer | 9/20/2012

An Ottawa woman’s fine this week from the Kansas Government Ethics Commission apparently was higher because of her previous experience as an elected official.

Heather Jones, former Franklin County attorney, was fined $500 for using a government-owned computer to distribute a political email, which violated the state’s campaign finance law. Jones, now head of the child abuse and sex crimes unit for the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office, sent an email from her Johnson County work computer to 13 people July 31 advocating ways they could help Jeff Curry, Franklin County sheriff, get elected to office.

An Ottawa woman’s fine this week from the Kansas Government Ethics Commission apparently was higher because of her previous experience as an elected official.

Heather Jones, former Franklin County attorney, was fined $500 for using a government-owned computer to distribute a political email, which violated the state’s campaign finance law. Jones, now head of the child abuse and sex crimes unit for the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office, sent an email from her Johnson County work computer to 13 people July 31 advocating ways they could help Jeff Curry, Franklin County sheriff, get elected to office.

Jones, Ottawa, went before the state’s ethics commission Wednesday in Topeka for a short hearing. Andy Taylor, a member of the nine-person ethics commission, said Jones’ main defense was that she didn’t know what she did violated campaign finance laws.

“She was unaware of the law that prohibited her from using the government-owned computer to do that,” Taylor said.

Jones did not return calls Thursday from The Herald about the ethics violation.

A provision (25-4169a) within the Kansas Campaign Finance Act states government equipment cannot be used “to expressly advocate the nomination, election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate to state office or local office.” Violation of the provision is a Class C misdemeanor, which carries with it possible fines and no more than one month of jail time.

The commission does not work under a set fee structure for penalties; instead it determines how much a fine should be on a case-by-case basis, Taylor said. Jones told the commission she served as Franklin County attorney for eight years, which Taylor said influenced the commission’s decision to levy a $500 fine.

“[T]he fact that she had also mentioned she had spent eight years previously as the county attorney in Franklin County, she should have had some knowledge or understanding of the law,” Taylor said. “So that was kind of the commission’s desire to send a message out that elected officials or government officials should be aware of the laws pertaining to the use of government equipment to expressly advocate for a candidate.”

Since the 2012 election season began, the ethics commission has conducted four hearings including Jones’ hearing Wednesday. In one case involving a Sedgwick County government employee, a $500 fine was levied for an email violation. Fines levied for email violations have been rare, with only a handful handed down in the past decade, according to the ethics commission’s public hearing records.

Jones reportedly told the commission she sent the email supporting the sheriff candidate as a private citizen and not as a representative of the Johnson County Attorney’s Office. She also said she wasn’t soliciting money or votes. While the email, which The Herald obtained from two anonymous sources shortly after it was sent out, did not directly ask for votes, it did tell its recipients to go door to door campaigning for Curry and to write letters of support to The Herald. The full text of the email can be found at www.ottawaherald.com/story/080312emailtext

The email, sent from the address Heather.Jones@jocogov.org, prompted Bill Beightel, investigator for the ethics commission, to look into the possible violation. Beightel, a 12-year veteran investigator, said a formal complaint was filed to the commission by an “outside source.” Jones cooperated fully with the investigation, Beightel said, and he was pleased with the overall investigation.

It is unclear whether the subject of the letter, Curry’s sheriff campaign, was helped or hindered by Jones’ email. Curry defeated his two competitors in the Republican primary, winning more than 50 percent of the votes. Curry declined to comment on the commission’s decision to fine the former county attorney.

The Johnson County District Attorney’s office also declined to comment about whether Jones would face any disciplinary action related to the violation. Christina Freeman, a spokesperson for Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe’s office, said Thursday it was a personnel matter and would not be discussed with the public

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