News Column

Ann Murguia Denies Conflict of Interest

Feb. 22, 2013

Steve Kraske, The Kansas City Star

For nearly six years, Ann Murguia has worn two hats -- commissioner for Wyandotte County's Unified Government and 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 longstanding 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 benefited herself.

"You cannot be on both the giving and receiving end of public money," Holland said.

Murguia denies any conflict. She asked for ethics opinions from local, state and national officials. Each time, she said, she was cleared of any conflict and allowed to cast 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.

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.

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.

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 a 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 benefiting her nonprofit 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 continues.

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 got $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 the Kansas ethics agency in 2007 concluded that 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.

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 her 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."

Months later, though, commissioners and residents clashed over changes to ethics rules, spurred partly by Murguia's interest in connecting ANDA to the stimulus program. Steve Hill, a former U.S. attorney, represented ANDA opposing the new rule pertaining to nonprofits. 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 nonprofits 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 nonprofits.

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," Commissioner Butch Ellison said. "She's honest. She's a hard worker. There's nothing in it for her."

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. 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 senator Pat Pettey recalled the dispute over Murguia's twin roles as an issue that divided the commission over several years.

Pettey, who backs Holland for mayor, said her relationship with Murguia deteriorated after Pettey voted for the ethics change. She said that at times it was confusing whom Murguia was representing at meetings -- ANDA or the Unified Board of Commissioners.

For Murguia, the end justifies the means, Pettey said.

"She just pushed it too far."

Source: (c)2013 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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