Politics & Government

Commissioners tried to fire manager for role in FBI’s O’Donnell probe, county counsel says

Attorney reads statement on behalf of his client, Sedgwick County Counselor Eric Yost

Attorney Austin Parker reads a statement on behalf of Sedgwick County Counselor Eric Yost, who was accused of violating attorney-client privilege by Commission Chairman David Dennis.
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Attorney Austin Parker reads a statement on behalf of Sedgwick County Counselor Eric Yost, who was accused of violating attorney-client privilege by Commission Chairman David Dennis.

Three Sedgwick County commissioners tried to fire County Manager Michael Scholes because Scholes had cooperated in an FBI investigation of Commissioner Michael O’Donnell, according to an attorney speaking on behalf of County Counselor Eric Yost.

Lawyer Austin Parker, who represents Yost, also confirmed that there is an ongoing FBI investigation of O’Donnell and commissioners David Unruh and David Dennis over the legality of the move to fire Scholes. Yost has been interviewed on that subject by FBI agents twice for a total of 3 1/2 hours, Parker said.

In addition, Parker said there’s now an ongoing effort to fire Yost, because he was the one who informed Scholes that his cooperation with the FBI was a motivating factor for commissioners who wanted to fire him.

O’Donnell faces federal charges of wire fraud and money laundering in connection with his handling of campaign funds in his race for commissioner and earlier, when he served as a state senator. He continues to serve on the commission pending a trial set for Jan. 29.

In a Friday news conference, Parker read a lengthy statement on behalf of Yost, who Dennis had accused of violating attorney-client confidentiality during the commission meeting last week.

“In sum, my client (Yost) is being punished for blowing the whistle on and attempting to thwart the unlawful efforts of commissioners Dennis, Unruh and O’Donnell, through both his internal discussions with Sedgwick County commissioners and the FBI,” Parker said. “Sedgwick County Counselor Yost remains proud he has, to date, prevented certain Sedgwick County commissioners from taking action that would have incurred tremendous liability for the county.”

Commissioners Richard Ranzau and Jim Howell have supported keeping Scholes and boycotted closed sessions directed at his removal. Both have said they are not targets of the FBI probe.

The other three commissioners voted last month to hire outside counsel to investigate county management, saying they were motivated by complaints from employees about how they’re treated on the job.

Several department heads have resigned or retired over the past year and commissioners say they’ve been told others are looking to leave.

At the Oct. 24 meeting, Dennis, O’Donnell and Unruh voted to change the commission quorum from four to three, so they could hold closed sessions related to the county management investigation without Ranzau and Howell.

Ranzau and Howell attended Friday’s news conference and said they were shocked to hear details they didn’t know. Both said they wouldn’t comment on Yost’s statement until they had a chance to review it in detail.

Dennis issued a statement through the county public relations department, two members of which also attended the Yost news conference.

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

Unruh did not want to comment on the details of the report.

“I’m satisfied to let the process work,” he said. “We’ve got investigations started and we just need to let the process run its course.”

Howell and Ranzau are both up for election Tuesday. Unruh isn’t seeking re-election and Dennis and O’Donnell are in mid-term and not on the ballot.

Parker said he and Yost decided to go public after the Oct. 24 commission meeting, where Dennis publicly accused Yost of leaking confidential information.

In that meeting, Dennis said:

“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. 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.”

Parker said it was necessary to defend Yost’s reputation after the county declined to retract and apologize for Dennis’ accusation.

The Yost statement said he had acted legally and ethically to prevent the commission majority from violating the law by firing or forcing Scholes to resign for talking to the FBI.

Had the three commissioners done that, it could have exposed them to civil and criminal liability. The county itself could have also been on the hook for civil damages, the statement said.

While Yost’s office advises the commission and represents individuals within the county government in many legal matters, his primary duty is to the county as an institution and to citizens, Parker said.

The claim made by Dennis that Yost had breached confidentiality is “unfounded,” the statement said.

The statement said lawyers are allowed to reveal otherwise confidential information to prevent a client from committing a crime, or for the lawyer to defend himself if he’s accused by a client of misconduct.

Yost’s memo provides the clearest timeline yet of the effort to fire Scholes, starting a year ago.

At that point, Unruh asked Yost for his legal opinion on whether Scholes could be fired for cooperating in the O’Donnell investigation.

Yost initially told Unruh that would be legal, but then followed up with a researched memo reversing that advice on Nov. 1, 2017.

“This memorandum explained that terminating Scholes for this reason would incur civil and criminal liability for Sedgwick County as a whole,” the Yost statement said.

In June, Unruh again approached Yost, telling him Scholes’ termination was imminent.

“Realizing that Scholes could soon be the target of of unlawful activity by at least some Sedgwick County Comissioners, Yost then gave Scholes a copy of his Nov. 1, 2017 memorandum,” the statement said.

More months passed.

In late September, O’Donnell told Yost that Dennis had learned of Scholes’ involvement in the FBI investigation and that it was the “’final straw’ for Commissioner Dennis concerning Scholes’ service as the Sedgwick County Manager,” the statement said.

On Sept. 28, Dennis met with Scholes and Deputy County Counselor Karen Powell, and told Scholes that he could either resign or face termination. In a subsequent meeting on Oct. 1, where Yost was present, Scholes presented the county with a list of demands concerning his departure, the statement said.

“During this meeting, it became apparent to Yost that Scholes did not realize his employment was being terminated based upon his cooperation with the FBI,” the statement said. “Yost called Scholes in order to ensure that Scholes did not agree to resign based upon the threat of an unlawful termination, as this would expose his client, Sedgwick County to potential legal liability.”

Scholes recorded that conversation, a copy of which has been obtained by Yost. Parker said he and Yost plan to release that recording to the public, probably next week.

On Oct. 2, Yost told Ranzau about Dennis, Unruh and O’Donnell’s move against Scholes. But before he could meet with Howell, he was contacted by the FBI and had two meetings with agents, the statement said.

The statement also said it was Yost’s understanding that Sheriff Jeff Easter informed Dennis of the existence of the recording of Yost’s call to Scholes.

And on Oct. 3, O’Donnell told Yost the FBI had the recording. That same day, Dennis told Yost “that he will never again trust him,” the statement said.

Since then, Unruh and Dennis have tried to get rid of Yost and retained an outside lawyer “for the express purpose of overseeing Yost’s separation,” the statement said.

Yost is now considering legal action of his own against the county, Parker said.

Dion Lefler; 316-268-6527, @DionKansas
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