Politics & Government

Under FBI cloud, Sedgwick County commissioners swap charges of illegal, unethical acts

Meltdown at Sedgwick County Commission meeting

Sedgwick County Commissioners David Dennis and Richard Ranzau trade accusations of unethical and illegal behavior during Wednesday's commission meeting. (Oct. 24, 2018)
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Sedgwick County Commissioners David Dennis and Richard Ranzau trade accusations of unethical and illegal behavior during Wednesday's commission meeting. (Oct. 24, 2018)

Charges and countercharges of unethical and illegal behavior flew back and forth at Wednesday’s Sedgwick County Commission meeting. And a slim majority of commissioners changed the rules to let them to proceed with an investigation that one commissioner has publicly confirmed is an effort to oust County Manager Michael Scholes.

During a series of tense exchanges, commission Chairman David Dennis accused County Counselor Eric Yost of revealing confidential information and violating attorney-client privilege.

Commissioner Richard Ranzau accused colleagues Dennis, Dave Unruh and Michael O’Donnell of trying to cover up illegal acts in an effort to fire Scholes.

And Commissioner Jim Howell said he has been contacted as a witness in an ongoing FBI investigation of some of his fellow commissioners.

Ranzau was already on the record as saying that the FBI is investigating other commissioners, and that he is not a target of the probe.

Dennis has not said the FBI is involved; he has confirmed that there’s an outside investigation of commissioners on a whistleblower complaint, and as far as he knows, he’s not a target of it.

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According to interviews and county memos obtained by The Eagle, the topic of the new FBI investigation is whether some commissioners violated federal law by seeking to fire Scholes for providing information to the FBI.

Sedgwick County commissioners vote to hire outside counsel to investigate personnel issues in the county government. Commissioner Richard Ranzau calls it "shenanigans." (Oct. 3, 2018)

O’Donnell was investigated by the FBI last year and now faces federal charges of wire fraud and money laundering related to his handling of campaign funds. He continues to serve on the commission pending a trial set for Jan. 29.

What information Scholes may have given FBI investigators, and whether it involved O’Donnell, has not been made public.

Memos obtained by the Eagle showed that Unruh had inquired late last year whether Scholes could be fired for disloyalty for reporting information to the FBI.

Yost at first told him that firing the manager was permissible because he owed a duty of loyalty to the commission.

But Yost later reversed the analysis and warned that proceeding against Scholes could expose Unruh and the county to possible criminal and civil liability under laws prohibiting retaliation against government whistleblowers.

In a statement Tuesday, Unruh confirmed he had consulted Yost, but said he took no action toward firing Scholes before or after.

The new FBI probe is one of two investigations going on in the county right now.

With support from Dennis, Unruh and O’Donnell, the commission has retained an outside lawyer — identified Wednesday as Stephanie Scheck, a Wichita attorney who practices human resources law — to investigate employee relations issues that they say have shattered morale and led to high turnover of key employees in county government.

Wednesday’s exchanges came as county commissioners voted to change the rules for what constitutes a quorum needed for the commission to conduct business.

That’s important because two of the five commissioners, Ranzau and Howell, had boycotted closed sessions on investigating county management.

That blocked Dennis, Unruh and O’Donnell from proceeding with the county investigation for about three weeks because they didn’t have a quorum in the closed session.

After the quorum requirement was lowered from four to three — with Howell and Ranzau dissenting — the other three held the closed session.

Howell and Ranzau did not participate and remained in the public chamber while Dennis, Unruh and O’Donnell went behind closed doors.

In the 1980s, the commissioners had set the quorum for their meetings at four members to skirt a provision in the Kansas Open Meetings Act that then defined an illegal meeting as a gathering, outside regular meetings, of a “majority of a quorum.”

Back then, that meant that a quorum was three and as a result, any two members discussing county business outside a meeting was illegal.

The Legislature changed the law in 2009 to allow one-on-one meetings of members of small boards, but the county’s four-member quorum requirement wasn’t changed until Wednesday.

Dennis said it wouldn’t be an issue if the two dissenting commissioners did their jobs and showed up for the closed sessions.

He quoted a state law authorizing the removal of commissioners who “neglect or refuse to perform any act which is his duty to perform.”

Razau took that as a threat.

“This is ridiculous,” he fired back at Dennis. “If you think you’re going to threaten me into illegal, what could be a cover-up for illegal activity, because I might be recalled or lose my position, you got another think coming.”

Ranzau also questioned why the change in quorum was put through as an off-agenda item that wasn’t provided to him or other commissioners, wasn’t made public, and hadn’t been reviewed by Yost before the meeting.

The resolution was presented Wednesday by Assistant County Counselor Karen Powell and Dennis said he didn’t consult Yost because he believed Yost, a former district court judge, had leaked confidential information.

“As far as another comment by Commissioner Ranzau about unethical and illegal information going out, where he is touting County Counselor Eric Yost to protect us from that, Eric Yost is part of the problem,” Dennis said. “Eric Yost has provided information to people that was confidential in nature, attorney-client privilege. Therefore, that is why I have not used Eric Yost.”

After the meeting, Yost would not comment on Dennis’ allegation.

But during the meeting, Ranzau defended the county counselor.

“People like Eric Yost are not the problem,” he said. “The majority of this commission is the problem.

“I would never want my attorney to hide unethical, potentially illegal behavior, from me or anybody else. Apparently, at least the chairman does. That is staggering, ladies and gentlemen, what’s going on here today,” Ranzau said.

“This is not a good day for this county and I’m afraid things are going to get worse at some point, once the FBI investigation is concluded,” he said.

O’Donnell said after the meeting that he didn’t care whether Scholes had provided information about him to the FBI or not.

And while he wouldn’t name Scholes as the target of the county personnel investigation, he said his legal difficulties and any role Scholes may have played are completely separate from why he’s supporting an inquiry into the treatment of employees.

He said multiple employees have contacted him and other commissioners with complaints about the way the county is being run.

“Just look at employee records from two years ago,” he said. “There has been a lot of retirements, resignations and people finding new jobs. It’s unsustainable.”

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