Politics & Government

County rehires retired attorney to try to navigate FBI, personnel investigations

Sedgwick County commissioners have turned to a familiar face to help them navigate investigations by them and of them, hiring back the retired Mike Pepoon to take over as their top lawyer.

Pepoon, a former assistant county counselor and county lobbyist, will run the legal department in place of County Counselor Eric Yost.

Yost, a former district court judge, is on indefinite paid leave after a news conference two weeks ago, where he released a statement accusing commissioners of trying to commit illegal acts in their efforts to oust County Manager Michael Scholes.

Pepoon enters a difficult legal landscape at the county.

Three members of the commission have retained a lawyer to investigate county personnel practices with an eye toward firing Scholes, according to e-mails obtained by The Eagle and Yost’s statement.

Simultaneously, the FBI is investigating whether the move to oust Scholes is in violation of federal laws that protect government whistleblowers from retaliation by their bosses, according to county memos and interviews.

Yost is expected to leave the county’s employment one way or another, through either a negotiated settlement or the commission firing him.

The motion to hire Pepoon, by Commissioner David Unruh, said Pepoon will head the county legal department “until appropriate county counsel is chosen.”

Pepoon, who worked for the county for more than 30 years, served as interim county counselor once before.

That was in 2015, after then-county counselor Rich Euson retired and before Yost was hired.

The vote to fill the county counselor job came about three hours after commissioners passed their first-ever ethics code and made a new rule clarifying that it takes three votes of the five-member board to take any official action.

The companion actions passed 5-0 after an at-times heated debate, where three commissioners initially sought to delay the requirement of three votes to pass binding county actions.

Commission Chairman David Dennis said he hadn’t been briefed on the proposal until just before the meeting started and had questions about it.

Commissioner Michael O’Donnell also criticized the timing. And Unruh objected to language implying that an earlier vote to change the commission’s quorum requirement had created confusion at the county.

That brought a heated response from Commissioner Richard Ranzau.

He called the objections “amazing” and “comical,” given that the purpose of the proposal was to clean up a change that Dennis, Unruh and O’Donnell made on Oct. 24, when they cut the number of members needed for a meeting quorum from four to three.

“You should do your jobs,” Ranzau told the majority commissioners. “Maybe you’re too preoccupied with this FBI investigation, but this is ridiculous. This is basic common sense.”

He said the Oct. 24 action had been sprung on him and Commissioner Jim Howell in that day’s meeting.

“You’ve got three commissioners who brought up an off-agenda item (Oct. 24) and didn’t tell two commissioners at all about it and ramrodded it through,” Ranzau said. “They intentionally kept it from commissioners and now they’re whining because they didn’t take the time to look at their agendas they were given last Thursday.

“You’ve got to be kidding me. You guys sit here with a straight face and actually say it’s (Howell’s) fault because you didn’t read your agenda and didn’t know anything about it.”

Howell proposed the clarification that it takes three votes to pass county business because the quorum change opened the possibility that if only three members were present at a meeting, it could take only two votes to pass binding action.

Unruh said he agreed with the concept but didn’t like the third “whereas” in the proposed resolution: ““This (quorum) change has created confusion and lack of clarity in how a meeting may be held with only three members and what constitutes a majority in that situation.”

“I want to support this,” Unruh said. “I prefer not to sign a resolution that has a statement that says we are confused and unclear.”

He asked for a week’s delay to allow a rewrite of that section, but it became moot when Howell, who proposed it, offered to simply drop the controversial sentence.

The commission majority of Dennis, Unruh and O’Donnell originally changed the quorum requirement to break a logjam caused when Ranzau and Howell boycotted closed sessions on an investigation into county personnel practices.

With two commissioners refusing to participate, the majority couldn’t move forward with the investigation.

The majority commissioners have said they have called for that investigation to respond to complaints about management, which they think has led to high turnover among key employees.

Memos obtained by The Eagle indicate the underlying purpose of that investigation is to try to oust Scholes from his job.

Those memos and the statement from Yost indicated that part of the reason some commissioners wanted Scholes to leave was that he had cooperated with and provided information to the FBI in an investigation of O’Donnell last year.

The FBI has been questioning commissioners, investigating whether some in the majority tried to retaliate against Scholes in violation of federal whistleblower-protection laws.

Immediately after passing the three-vote requirement to do county business, the commissioners adopted an ethics code calling for honesty and transparency in the conduct of county business.

The code was pulled nearly word-for-word from the model ethics code of the Kansas County Commissioner Association.

The six provisions deal with honesty, openness and accountability; decorum and respect; stewardship of financial and human resources; continuing education and personal development; and impartiality and avoidance of conflicts of interest.

There are no provisions for enforcement of the ethics code and no penalty if a commissioner violates it.

Ranzau said the code was discussed with commissioners early this year, but it was dropped when he indicated to county staff that he wanted to add some teeth to it.

After their regular meeting, commissioners called closed sessions for two hours of discussion on personnel issues.

Dion Lefler; 316-268-6527, @DionKansas
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