Wichita — Cindy Hoedel and Scott Yeargain, who live in or near the Kansas Flint Hills, began looking into oil and gas operations near their homes as early as 2016.
The two, separately, worried about earthquakes and water quality issues that new wastewater injection wells would create.
Hoedel documented a few dozen instances where injection well permit applications didn’t follow Kansas Corporation Commission guidelines. That led to a KCC report identifying more than 1,000 similar cases.
In their efforts to challenge new permits, Hoedel and Yeargain helped other interested landowners understand the process.
Then-KCC deputy attorney Dustin Kirk filed a complaint with the Kansas Attorney General’s office in June 2018 accusing Hoedel and Yeargain of acting as attorneys without a license.
“It seems very obvious that it was an attempt to silence me and make me go away,” said Hoedel, a former Kansas City Star journalist.
With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Hoedel and Yeargain filed a lawsuit in federal court on Thursday against Kirk claiming he retaliated against their efforts to protest wastewater injection wells and violated their First Amendment rights.
The lawsuit seeks an acknowledgment that Kirk’s actions violated those rights. It contends that his complaint cost her $20,000 in potential income and seeks compensation for other, unspecified monetary damages.
The suit claims that Kirk’s complaint was baseless because the only evidence submitted were three emails Hoedel and Yeargain had sent to other activists.
Hoedel’s emails urged other activists to participate in a pre-hearing conference if they wanted to continue their protests. She also wrote that she often files pre-written testimony and offered to share a template to help them get started.
Yeargain’s emails asked whether he could stand in for two other activists during a pre-hearing call while they were gone on vacation.
“There’s no way any attorney who passed their professional responsibility exam,” ACLU of Kansas Legal Director Lauren Bonds said, “would think that what Cindy and Scott were doing constituted the unauthorized practice of law.”
The Kansas Attorney General’s office closed the case a few months later without comment.
Hoedel says the complaint was stressful and that it was embarrassing to be accused of a crime. She also said it hurt her freelance consulting business and damaged her reputation in the middle of her campaign for a seat on the Chase County Commission.
Yeargain and Hoedel also claimed in the suit that Kirk’s complaint had a chilling effect on their activities and those of other activists.
Kirk no longer works for the KCC. He declined to comment about the lawsuit.
In an email, KCC spokeswoman Linda Berry said that the complaint Kirk filed last year is the only one like it the agency is aware has ever been made by a KCC employee. Other officials at the agency, she said, learned of Kirk’s complaint through media reports.
Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett or email him at grimmett (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.
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