Frustrations flared at a meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission, where commissioners are dealing with at least two investigations and negotiating an exit for their county counselor.
The commission held Friday’s special session in part to finalize a deal with Mike Pepoon to take over the operation of the county’s legal department in place of County Counselor Eric Yost.
Yost has been on paid suspension since shortly after a news conference in which his lawyer provided details of an investigation ordered by the commission into personnel practices of County Manager Michael Scholes — and of an FBI probe into whether commissioners had illegally tried to retaliate against Scholes on the job because he provided information to agents investigating Commissioner Michael O’Donnell.
Commissioners also held a closed session on personnel issues Friday.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Wichita Eagle
They received a report on the Scholes investigation on Wednesday, but have not talked publicly about the details of that report. Two commissioners confirmed privately that Friday’s closed session was about Yost, not Scholes.
The three-member commission majority, O’Donnell, David Dennis and David Unruh, have said they called for the investigation of Scholes’ management because they’re concerned about high turnover of key county employees.
When commissioners returned to the bench after their closed meeting Friday, Commissioner Richard Ranzau asked whether the commission was ready to proceed with an investigation of actions by commissioners that may be contributing to problems at the county.
When they originally voted to start investigating, the commissioners indicated they would have outside counsel look at staff matters first and then follow up with an investigation of commission activity.
Ranzau said he thinks now that the staff part of the investigation is done, the other commissioners should keep their word and stand for investigation themselves.
“We talked about having an investigation into commissioner misconduct after the other one was done,” Ranzau said. “I guess I’d like to know what we’re going to do to get that started.”
Pepoon said he only started working Thursday so he wasn’t up to speed, but he would talk to the outside counsel the county hired for the Scholes investigation and find out what they were doing.
Ranzau’s comment led Dennis to read a prepared statement saying it was time to stop talking about possible commissioner wrongdoing until new information surfaces.
“I guess with the comment from Commissioner Ranzau, it’s extremely troubling that some of our commissioners continue to make unproven allegations, especially because as everyone has fully cooperated with the external investigation, it appears there has been no further activity (by the FBI) for at least six weeks,” Dennis said. “Unless any commissioner or person has new, credible information, they should stop personal attacks.”
Dennis said he was pleased that Ranzau and Commissioner Jim Howell were once again attending closed sessions. “This demonstrates that we are moving forward with county business,” Dennis said.
Howell and Ranzau had blocked the Scholes investigation for several weeks by refusing to attend closed sessions about it. But the majority blunted the boycott by reducing from four to three the number of commissioners needed for a quorum to hold meetings.
Ranzau replied that he was just asking about something the commission had agreed to do.
“Just to be clear, we voted on something and it passed, to investigate the conduct of commissioners for the past two years and the environment that’s been created by commissioners up here,” Ranzau said. “So I’m just trying to follow up on something that should we move forward on.”
Replied Dennis: “We can follow up and discuss it, but once again, nothing has happened for at least six weeks and I have found nothing credible that shows there is any kind of wrongdoing in Sedgwick County.”
Ranzau: “You’re talking about the FBI investigation, I’m talking about conduct in general for the past two years that may or may not even be investigated by the FBI.”
Ranzau has previously alleged that he thinks O’Donnell in particular has abused his position by trying to arrange real-estate deals to benefit friends and campaign contributors.
Ranzau and Howell support keeping Scholes as manager and have opposed investigating him.
According to Yost, Scholes was presented a resign-or-be-fired ultimatum by Dennis.
Yost said he disclosed to Scholes that at least part of the reason some commissioners wanted him out was because he had cooperated and provided information in an FBI investigation last year into activities of O’Donnell.
O’Donnell is charged with wire fraud and money laundering in connection with his handling of campaign funds. He continues to serve on the commission pending a federal court trial now scheduled for late January.