The Sedgwick County Commission placed County Counselor Eric Yost on paid administrative leave Wednesday in the midst of controversy surrounding an FBI investigation of commissioners and tense discussions over a settlement to lead to his permanent departure.
The commission put Deputy County Counselor Karen Powell in charge of the county’s legal work pending the probable appointment of an interim county counsel, likely a retired county lawyer.
The 3-2 vote to place Yost on leave comes as at least two investigations are underway at the commission: one an FBI probe into whether commissioners tried to illegally fire County Manager Michael Scholes for cooperating with the FBI; the other a county-ordered investigation of county management in the wake of multiple resignations and retirements of high-level personnel.
Commissioners David Dennis, Michael O’Donnell and David Unruh voted to suspend Yost. Commissioners Richard Ranzau and Jim Howell voted no, and Howell objected to the action from the bench.
“I don’t have any information that he’s done anything wrong, in my opinion,” Howell said. “I think that we are acting unnecessarily and in a way that’s going to continue to harm the county.”
The vote came at the end of a 45-minute closed meeting of the commissioners.
Ranzau and Howell participated after receiving assurance from Dennis that Yost would be the only subject. Both those commissioners have boycotted closed-door discussions about the investigation of county management, believing it to be an improper attempt to target Scholes.
After the meeting Unruh said the closed session sparked “an active and vigorous discussion.”
“Right now we are clearly in a lot of turmoil and crisis and we’ve got lots of investigations going on and different things happening and we really need to let the process take its course,” Unruh said. “And when the dust settles, I’m hopeful that the people of Sedgwick County will think we’ve done the right thing during these crises.”
After Tuesday’s election, the clock is ticking and current commissioners are hoping to right the ship before two new members come on in January.
Ranzau got voted out after eight years in office and will be replaced by Lacey Cruse, a newcomer to local government.
Unruh has been on the commission 16 years, but didn’t seek re-election. He’ll be replaced by Wichita City Councilman Pete Meitzner.
“As I’m getting close to the end, I just want to finish out making good decisions,” Unruh said.
Yost has been at the center of the controversy since he told Scholes that commissioners were moving to oust him because he had provided information to the FBI in an investigation last year of Commissioner Michael O’Donnell.
O’Donnell is awaiting trial on federal charges of wire fraud and money laundering in connection with his handling of campaign funds. He continues to serve on the commission pending the outcome.
On Oct. 24, Dennis, the commission chair, said he had decided to work with Powell because he felt Yost violated attorney-client privilege.
In a news conference last week, Yost’s attorney, Austin Parker, issued a statement from Yost saying he had taken the action of informing Scholes to prevent the commission majority — Dennis, O’Donnell and Unruh — from committing a crime, which is an exception to attorney-client confidentiality.
Dennis had presented Scholes with a quit-or-be-fired ultimatum that in Yost’s view would have opened the commissioners to criminal and civil liability for retaliating against Scholes for cooperating with the FBI — and exposed the county to liability and maybe a large financial judgment, the statement said.
The Eagle has also obtained legal memos from Parker and attorneys retained by the county to negotiate Yost’s separation from the organization.
Those memos show that Yost at first sought a $250,000 settlement, and later amended that to
$125,000 and a public apology and letter of reference from Dennis.
Wednesday’s action to suspend Yost indicates that the county lawyers and Parker have not reached an agreement for his permanent departure.
Parker, who attended Wednesday’s meeting, had no comment afterward.