Gov. Sam Brownback’s former commerce secretary has ended his congressional campaign days after The Kansas City Star published an investigation into state contracts during his tenure.
The Star, in a story published online Thursday evening, identified at least nine associates of Antonio Soave who landed state contracts for consulting and marketing services during the 18 months he ran the Kansas Department of Commerce. The next day, Brownback, who had repeatedly denied forcing Soave to resign, acknowledged that he had terminated Soave’s cabinet post in June.
“After a great deal of prayer and contemplation, my wife and I have decided that it is best to withdraw” from the race, Soave said in the post. “... We are most thankful to everyone who has supported us throughout this process. As Christians and believers, it is our priority to serve God and our family first, as well as our neighbors. Many have been wonderful friends and neighbors throughout this journey, and we are indeed grateful to all.”
Soave said that he and his wife are waiting the birth of their sixth child and that the “stress of this campaign has proven to be more than we anticipated. As a result, we feel it is best to focus our attention on our children and our home.”
Soave faces a lawsuit from a business partner, Paola Ghezzo, an Italian native who lives in Lawrence. Ghezzo has accused Soave of spending her $500,000 investment in their Overland Park consulting firm, Capistrano Italia, on personal items.
Ghezzo was one of several Soave associates to hold a state contract during his leadership of Commerce. She was paid $6,000 a month until June, the same month she filed her lawsuit and Soave was terminated.
Soave has denied the allegations but said in a court filing that Ghezzo’s lawsuit caused Brownback to force his resignation.
Brownback’s office said Friday that Soave “did a number of positive things but also presented a number of problems that resulted in his termination. Among those problems, he entered into several consulting contracts that reflected a lack of judgment and that the Governor felt were inappropriate. These contracts were either terminated or not renewed as appropriate under the circumstances.”
Soave’s decision to end his congressional campaign comes at a time when Republicans appear vulnerable in the 2nd District, which the GOP has held since U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins first won election in 2008. Jenkins has decided to retire from Congress at the end of her current term. The district stretches from the Nebraska border to Oklahoma and includes Lawrence, Topeka and Pittsburg.
National Democrats plan to target the seat in 2018 and so far Democrat Paul Davis has outraised all the Republican candidates combined. Davis, a former state legislator from Lawrence, won the district in his 2014 race for governor despite losing statewide to Brownback.
Republicans are not taking the seat for granted, said Kelly Arnold, the state’s Republican chair. “Whoever wins the primary, we will have a good contender to go against Paul Davis,” said Arnold, who noted that President Donald Trump won the district in 2016.
The remaining Republican candidates in the race are state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald of Leavenworth, state Sen. Caryn Tyson of Parker, state Rep. Kevin Jones of Wellsville and Vernon J. Fields, a member of the Basehor City Council.
Fitzgerald said in a phone call he is “saddened to find out the details of what happened that led to his (Soave’s) being let go as secretary of Commerce and the problems that he has, apparently, in his professional life.”
Arnold wouldn’t comment on the specific details about Soave’s exit from the Commerce Department, but he said that scrutiny of candidates in a competitive race should be expected.
“Anybody that runs for a major office, such as Congress, should know that people will look at all aspects of your life and different business dealings… and as a potential candidate you need to think through if this something you can withstand the scrutiny on,” Arnold said.
Soave in August took a job with the One Heart Project, a Texas-based charity that is expanding into Kansas City. Steve Riach, the charity’s founder, runs a marketing firm that received more than $300,000 from the Commerce Department under Soave’s leadership.
Soave and Riach have denied any connections between the contract and his hiring. Riach’s charity announced Soave’s departure from the charity last week.
“I was proud to serve the people of Kansas during my tenure as Commerce Secretary. I did my very best to increase the economic impact on the state in a way that I felt was appropriate and positive,” Soave said on Facebook. “During that time, I was glad that we were able to achieve some good results. Kansas is indeed a great place to live and work, as well as to raise a family. This was one of the primary messages that I attempted to convey to those outside of our state.”
The Star’s Hunter Woodall contributed to this report.