For nearly six years, Ann Murguia has worn two hats – that of commissioner for Wyandotte County’s Unified Government and as executive director of the Argentine Neighborhood Development Association.
Now one of her opponents to become the county’s next mayor and CEO says those dual roles constitute a long-standing conflict of interest.
Fellow commissioner Mark Holland says Murguia crossed the line several times in 2007 and 2008 in voting for county budgets that sent money to her employer, often referred to as ANDA, and thereby benefitted herself.
“You cannot be on both the giving and receiving end of public money,” Holland said. “That is a value that we have to defend tenaciously. When that principle was violated — overtly violated — somebody had to stand up and stop it. I feel very good about that accomplishment.”
Murguia denies any conflict. She asked for ethics opinions from local, state and national officials. Each time, Murguia said, she was cleared her of any conflict and allowed to cast those votes.
“I went the extra mile to sign documents that said none of the money coming through my organization would be used to pay my salary,” Murguia said. “We took care of all of that.”
The issue is neither new nor settled. Concerns about the potential conflict have divided the county’s elected officials and altered how ANDA can receive money from the Unified Government.
Murguia said she was a victim of her own success at securing funds for the Argentine association from the county.
“A couple of commissioners decided that they weren’t too excited about me getting any money from the local government,” she said.
Holland and Murguia are competing with three other candidates in Tuesday’s primary election. The top two finishers will then square off in the April 2 general election.
As a sitting commissioner with a family name well-known in Wyandotte County politics, Murguia is seen as a strong contender to survive the primary. Likewise, the endorsement of the previous two mayors makes Holland another strong candidate to make the cut.
Murguia’s involvement as both a Unified Government commissioner and the paid leader of the Argentine group sparked a contentious debate in 2009. That led to the commission passing a new ethics policy that barred Murguia from voting on budgets benefittng her non-profit group.
The new policy forced ANDA to create a separate entity to receive Unified Government money to pay for an office manager. Murguia cannot be part of that new organization. Now, with the mayor’s race reaching a crescendo before the primary, the debate over Murguia’s dual roles continue.
She was sworn into office as the District 3 commissioner representing southeast Wyandotte County in April 2007. About two weeks later, she signed a contract to become the paid executive director of ANDA with a $60,000 salary that was to rise by $10,000 a year until it reached $90,000 in May 2010. Previously, she had been an ANDA volunteer.
County records show ANDA received $32,500 in 2008 from a neighborhood improvement grant program and $22,500 in 2009 from the Unified Government. That money was cut off after changes to the ethics policy.
As commissioner, Murguia voted for budgets that allocated those dollars. She said an opinion from the Unified Government’s ethics administrator at the time said she could. The current ethics administrator, Ruth Benien, said her office did not have records from the previous administrator.
Another opinion from Kansas’ state ethics agency in 2007 concluded Murguia must abstain from acting on any contract between the Unified Government and ANDA, although she could participate in “legislative and administrative decisions” affecting the community organization.
Even though the state ethics panel said she could legally vote on some matters involving ANDA, it said doing so could “foster an appearance of impropriety.”
The opinions seeming to clear Murguia didn’t satisfy Holland.
“If this had been going on in Kansas City, Mo….it would have been front-page news,” he said. “It really fell under the radar.”
Holland said he didn’t know about the money going to Argentine until Murguia pursued $3.6 million in federal stimulus dollars in 2009 on behalf of ANDA. When city officials checked to see if Murguia’s role as both county commissioner and ANDA executive director would violate federal conflict-of-interest standards, he said, her role in securing Unified Government dollars for ANDA came to his attention.
In a letter to the Kansas Commerce Department regarding the stimulus dollars, the county’s legal department cleared Murguia and ANDA to accept the money as part of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. That clearance came with a condition that Murguia would not “exercise any function or responsibility with respect to the program or participate in the decision-making process or gain inside information.”
Just months later, though, commissioners and residents clashed over changes to the Unified Government ethics rules, spurred in part by Murguia’s interest in connecting ANDA to the stimulus program. Steve Hill, the former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri, represented ANDA and opposed the new ethics rule pertaining to non-profits. He said it was unnecessary.
“There is no greater transparency than what ANDA and the commissioner have done,” Hill said that night.
The new rules affecting non-profits such as ANDA were adopted by a 6-4 vote.
That change stopped ANDA from receiving stimulus dollars. Holland said the federal money intended for Argentine wound up being funneled through other non-profits.
Murguia’s supporters say the conflict charge is not about ethics. Rather, they say her situation has been seized on by those in Unified Government who feel threatened by Murguia’s often aggressive politics.
“There’s no conflict of interest whatsoever,” veteran Commissioner Butch Ellison said. “She’s honest. She’s a hard worker. There’s nothing in it for her.”
Ellison called the allegations nothing more than a “witch hunt.”
“They’re trying to find something because Ann is very popular,” he said. “It’s trying to find something that creates a question. That’s what they’re doing.”
Eight-year commissioner Mike Kane, who has not announced an endorsement in the mayor’s race, also didn’t think Murguia had a problem.
“When … the ethics people say it’s OK, I’m not going to question it,” he said.
The Unified Government’s former economic development director, LaVert Murray, sees it differently.
“There was a great deal of anxiety over the Argentine Neighborhood Development Association receiving these funds,” he said. “And my department was right in the middle of it because of concerns of conflict of interest.”
Murray retired in 2009.
Former commissioner and current Kansas state senator Pat Pettey recalled the dispute over Murguia’s twin roles as an issue that divided the commission over several years. The body had pro-Murguia members and members who started to question her actions.
Pettey, who backs Holland for mayor, said her relationship with Murguia deteriorated after Pettey voted for the ethics change. She said at times it was confusing who Murguia was representing at meetings — ANDA or the Unified Board of Commissioners.
For Murguia, the ends justify the means, Pettey said. “She just pushed it too far.”
To reach Steve Kraske, call 816-234-4312 or email email@example.com.