Sedgwick County investigates itself
An effort by members of the Sedgwick County Commission to oust the county manager is under investigation by the FBI for potential obstruction of justice based on possible whistleblower retaliation, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Eagle.
County memos show at least one commissioner inquired with legal staff about firing County Manager Michael Scholes for reporting information on commissioner conduct to the FBI.
That could potentially be a violation of federal civil and criminal laws that protect government employees who inform authorities of wrongdoing by their superiors.
Scholes could not be reached for comment.
Commissioner Richard Ranzau has confirmed that the FBI has been interviewing county officials and employees.
He said he is not a target of that investigation.
Commission Chairman David Dennis confirmed that two investigations are underway at the courthouse:
▪ a county investigation into personnel issues that have allegedly damaged worker morale and prompted employees to resign or retire,
▪ an outside investigation by another agency he would not name based on a whistleblower complaint originating within county government.
Dennis said his understanding is he is not a target of the whistleblower investigation.
One memo The Eagle has obtained indicated that an assistant county counselor has prepared an affidavit for commissioners to sign, affirming that the investigation of the county manager’s performance is not intended as retaliation against Scholes for providing information to the FBI.
None of the memos The Eagle has reviewed were clear about what information Scholes may have provided to the bureau.
One did show, however, that Commissioner David Unruh and possibly others had entertained the idea of firing Scholes late last year because of what they saw as a breach of loyalty in his providing information to the FBI.
Last year, the FBI investigated Commissioner Michael O’Donnell on multiple allegations of campaign corruption. He now faces federal criminal charges on three counts of money laundering and 23 counts of wire fraud related to his handling of campaign contributions while serving as a commissioner and earlier as a state senator.
In a written statement, Unruh confirmed Tuesday that he had asked county attorneys 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,” Unruh said. “Counsel then sent an e-mail with detailed information that action would be illegal. I followed the legal counsel and never pursued that action.”
Unruh said he was motivated by staff complaints about the management of the county.
“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,” he said in his statement. “Since then, I have continued to express my great concern.”
O’Donnell continues to serve on the commission while awaiting trial and is one of the three commissioners supporting the county’s investigation of Scholes’ management.
Dennis, Unruh and O’Donnell have supported that investigation, while Ranzau and Commissioner Jim Howell have been opposed.
The county personnel investigation is temporarily stalled, after the law firm hired to conduct it backed out, memos show.
Dennis said the county counselor’s office has found another firm.
And an effort to have a closed session to set the parameters of the investigation foundered when Ranzau declined to participate. Howell later confirmed he wouldn’t have attended that closed session either, leaving the commission with less than its customary quorum of four of the five members.
Dennis said he is hopeful of breaking that deadlock at Wednesday’s commission meeting.
On Tuesday, he sought to reassure the public that the county is running business as usual despite the unusual circumstances at the top.
“Our county is operating fine right now,” he said. “We have great employees that are doing great work every single day for our citizens.”
But, he said politics have spilled over into the staff.
“It’s putting our employees into the worst possible situation that they can be in right now,” he said. “A number of key staff are in terrible situations right now as a result of that. Most importantly, I’ve got to protect our staff and I’ve got to listen to our employees.”
The O’Donnell trial is also in a holding pattern.
Last week, the judge delayed the trial date for the third time, at O’Donnell’s request. It is now scheduled to start on Jan. 29.
In a filing last week, O’Donnell’s lawyer wrote that he needs the additional time to review discovery documents that the prosecution has not yet provided to the defense.