Sedgwick County Investigations: How Did We Get Here?

Nov 13, 2018

Sedgwick County commissioners will consider whether to adopt a code of ethics at their Wednesday meeting.

More than 20 specific statements governing commissioner conduct, accountability and ethical standards are in the document.

Commissioners do not currently have an ethical code of conduct. Chairman David Dennis brought up the idea of establishing a code of ethical conduct in early February during a county staff meeting.

At least two investigations are looking into Sedgwick County leadership and the county commission.

Here is a timeline of recent events:

Oct. 3: Sedgwick County commissioners David Dennis, Dave Unruh and Michael O’Donnell vote to hire outside counsel instead of using the county’s attorney to look into some personnel problems. The motion passed 3-2 with commissioners Jim Howell and Richard Ranzau voting no.

Howell and Ranzau say they are against the plan because they were not provided a scope or objective of the investigation.

Oct. 10: Dennis, the commission chairman, announces at meeting that he held a limited meeting with the outside attorney hired for the internal review.

Dennis says the investigation into Sedgwick County leadership is stalled because he isn’t able to get a quorum for meetings.

The county needs a quorum of four people to hold meetings, including an executive session. Ranzau and Howell boycott meetings related to the county-ordered personnel investigation.

Oct. 17: Judge grants defense request to delay O’Donnell’s federal trial until Jan. 29. It was previously scheduled to begin Nov. 13.

Prosecutors say O'Donnell fraudulently obtained $10,500 from his campaign accounts for his personal use. An indictment charges him with 23 counts of wire fraud and two counts of money laundering. O’Donnell has pleaded not guilty.

O’Donnell was also among several people whose phone calls were intercepted by Department of Justice officials in 2015 for an investigation. He was a state senator at the time.

Oct. 24: Dennis provides a scope for the personnel review and requests that the attorney interview current and former members of the executive team and department directors, among others.

Dennis says he’s hoping for an “open, external and transparent” analysis into factors that are contributing to low morale and staff issues.

Dennis says outside legal counsel is needed because County Counselor Eric Yost is part of the problem. He said during the weekly commission meeting that Yost breached attorney-client privilege in the past year.

Dennis, Ranzau and Howell confirm that the FBI is conducting its own investigation into the county commission.

Ranzau and Howell issue statements during the meeting about the county’s personnel review and the FBI investigation. Both say they are not under investigation.

Ranzau says Dennis, Unruh and O’Donnell are the target of the FBI investigation. He says they tried to fire County Manager Michael Scholes because Scholes cooperated with the ongoing FBI investigation related to Commissioner O’Donnell.

Oct. 24: Commissioners approve, by a three-to-two vote, a change in the county’s quorum policy. Dennis says the change is needed to comply with state law. Ranzau and Howell vote against the proposal, saying it was politically motivated.

Three commissioners instead of four will need to be present to conduct county business or hold meetings, including executive sessions.

Oct. 26: Howell sends letter to Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt requesting a formal review of the quorum policy change. Howell contends lowering quorum to three on a five-member board raises a concern about open and transparent government.

As of last week, Schmidt’s office said the request for opinion is under review.

Nov. 2: Yost’s attorney holds a news conference and issues a statement refuting Dennis’ claims that Yost violated attorney-client privilege.

Yost’s attorney, Austin Parker, releases a timeline of events surrounding Yost interactions with the commissioners and Scholes over the past two years.

Nov. 7: County commissioners vote 3-2 to put Yost on paid administrative leave until further notice. Ranzau and Howell are the no votes.

Deputy County Counselor Karen Powell is the acting counselor until Yost returns to full duty or the position is filled.

 

Chairman David Dennis

Statement from Nov. 2:

“Regarding a news conference held by County Counselor Eric Yost’s attorney, I continue to be troubled by public unsubstantiated allegations.

“I do hope that the public remembers that just because someone makes an accusation, does not mean it is true. The proper authorities must and should be able to seek information from all.

“There are processes in place, and I will continue to follow those processes even as others attempt to prevent or use for political reasons.

“We are focused on providing quality public services to 500,000 citizens every day and appreciate our employees who provide those services.”

Statement from Nov. 7:

“Given statements and discussions in our Board meeting two weeks ago and subsequent news conferences and public statements made since, I believe it is important to address the public on the public record.

“I continue to be personally troubled by unproven public allegations because I believe it is important for there to be external processes to provide answers. I learned a long time ago that just because someone makes a claim does not mean it is true.

“Based on some of the public statements made, I have two clarifications. “A first example of misinformation publicly stated, I will say again, that it is my clear understanding I am not considered a suspect in a whistleblower investigation.

“A second important example of unfounded claims made in our meeting two weeks ago, I will say again that there was a previous, separate external investigation of commissioner actions and nothing was found regarding county operations. These are just two examples.

“Meanwhile I personally believe it is important to follow smart, thoughtful processes. We must work with any external investigation and also through our own independent, external, unbiased leadership and organizational assessment.

“My two goals and pledge remain the same as from the beginning. We must listen to and protect our employees. And we must continue to govern our County providing quality public service to our 500,000 Sedgwick County citizens.”

Commissioner Dave Unruh

Statement from Oct. 23:

“Since February 2016, I have expressed to multiple people my great concern about leadership issues at the County and treatment of long-time, valued staff. Last year I asked a question from legal counsel whether the manager could be terminated for reporting concerns about commissioner actions.

“Counsel first told me that it could be considered disloyalty but I took no action. Counsel then sent an e-mail with detailed information that action would be illegal. I followed legal counsel and never pursued that action. In the nearly year since then I have continued to express my great concern about leadership issues at the County and treatment of long-time, valued staff.”

Commissioner Michael O’Donnell

Statement from Nov. 6 through Mark Schoenhofer, attorney for O’Donnell:

“In light of the continuing stories about Commissioner Michael O'Donnell, we believe it is time to release a brief statement to the press.

“Mr. O'Donnell will not try his case in the press, regardless of the ongoing public criticisms of him by other members of Sedgwick County government. Mr. O'Donnell will not publicly address these criticism, or otherwise answer that which is no more than campaign rhetoric and chest beating by certain members of the Commission and other third floor offices. The truth regarding all criminal allegations will come to light in Mr. O'Donnell's trial, where we are confident he will be acquitted of all criminal charges. Mr. O'Donnell will have his day in Court.”

Commissioner Jim Howell

Statement from Nov. 2:

“I attended a press conference this morning and heard new details regarding the alleged actions of three of my colleagues. Please know I have been and will continue to be in full cooperation with the criminal investigators and the outside independent attorney that is “studying the county’s leadership”.

“I continue to stand firm for transparency, honesty, and ethical behavior both personally and as a government servant. My actions in not attending the recent executive meeting was for this very purpose. Until the criminal investigations into the three commissioners are concluded I see no ethical path forward in pursuing the termination of county senior staff. Obviously, some very serious allegations have been made and must be taken seriously.

“On a personal note, I have never seen or heard Chief Counsel Eric Yost act in anything but the most ethical and professional manner. Based on the press conference today, I continue to have the highest respect for Counselor Yost and his actions.”

Commissioner Richard Ranzau

Statement issued during Oct. 24 commission meeting:

“I cannot participate in the proposed investigation into staff performance or anything else related to it because “1, I believe this is likely an attempt to cover up possible illegal conduct of commissioners O’Donnell, Unruh and Dennis.

“There has been an attempt by these commissioners to fire the county manager because they believe he cooperated with an ongoing FBI investigation relating to Commissioner O’Donnell.

“This effort is possibly a violation of KOMA (Kansas Open Records Act) and the federal whistleblower law.

“2, The above mentioned commissioner have on multiple occasions sought to fire county personnel in a manner that intentionally avoided have any discussion or input from other commissioners. That is likely a violation of KOMA.

“3, The repeated behavior of commissioners O’Donnell, Unruh and Dennis has led me to believe that they cannot be trusted to conduct themselves with honesty, candor or integrity when it comes to these issues.

“4, I believe it is in the best interest of Sedgwick County and its citizens to allow the ongoing FBI investigation to run its course before any potential personnel investigation or decisions are made.”

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