Kansas ethics panel tackles first Facebook cases

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Two Kansas legislative candidates who had been "friended" by lobbyists on Facebook were fined Wednesday for improperly posting announcements about fundraisers, marking the state ethics commission's first cases involving social media.

Kansas law prohibits legislators and statewide elected officials, along with candidates for those offices, from soliciting campaign contributions from lobbyists, businesses and political action committees while the Legislature is in session.

The Governmental Ethics Commission concluded that Rep. Greg Smith of Overland Park and House candidate Becky Nioce of Topeka violated the law and fined them each $100. But the panel also found that neither Republican intended to break the law.

Smith and Nioce posted notices about fundraising events on their Facebook pages in late May, but the Legislature didn't formally end its session until June 1. Smith is running for an open Senate seat, and Nioce is challenging Democratic state Rep. Annie Kuether.

Fines for elected officials and candidates for breaking the anti-solicitation law aren't unusual, but previous cases have involved fundraising letters being sent to lobbyists who were included on mailing or email lists.

"It's the first time we've had a social media question," said Carol Williams, the commission's executive director. "I think with the explosion of social media, this is something we'll see far more."

Smith argued that he didn't break the law because his posting, though it described the event as a barbecue and fundraiser, didn't list a location or specifically ask for money. Smith said he put the notice on his Facebook page in hopes of finding out how much food he'd need to buy and noted that he reported the problem to the commission.

"The fact that I may have violated the law has caused me enough angst that I've lost sleep over it," Smith told the commission.

Smith noted that in a 2007 opinion, the commission said the law contemplated "overt action" to solicit a contribution and that an email message or link to a website didn't violate the law if it didn't include words like "contribute" or "donate." But in a 2000 opinion, the commission had said that a "heads up" letter about a fundraiser would violate the law if it went to lobbyists during the legislative session, even if the event were afterward.

"Putting something up on Facebook is not being very active," Smith said after the hearing on his case. "If it had been called a meet-and-greet with Greg Smith, we probably wouldn't be here."

Nioce included a link to donate to her campaign on her Facebook page, but she noted that she removed the posting for her fundraiser as soon as the commission contacted her. She said she doesn't know the occupations of all her Facebook "friends" and hasn't met some of them.

"It was simply a mistake on my part," she said. "In the future, I will take better care."


Online:

Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission: http://www.kansas.gov/ethics/

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