Sedgwick County commissioners are pressing forward with an investigation of their own conduct in office, despite a dispute over the validity of an outside counsel’s investigation of the county manager that was supposed to come first.
Commission Chairman David Dennis said Wednesday that he’s ready to move forward with a probe examining commissioners’ actions and whether they’ve contributed to low morale and an exodus of top county employees.
Commissioners originally agreed to do that on Oct. 24, but put it on hold until after they got a report on County Manager Michael Scholes.
Three commissioners — Dennis, David Unruh and Michael O’Donnell — have moved to oust Scholes. The other two, Richard Ranzau and Jim Howell, have been playing defense to try to keep the manager in his job.
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The county-ordered investigations are in addition to a separate probe by the FBI into whether the effort to fire Scholes may have been motivated in part by his cooperation with FBI agents investigating O’Donnell last year.
O’Donnell faces federal charges of wire fraud and money laundering in connection with his handling of campaign funds. He continues to serve while awaiting a trial scheduled for late January.
At Wednesday’s commission meeting, Dennis declared the investigation of county management complete and said it’s now time to move on to the investigation of the commissioners themselves.
He offered to collaborate with Ranzau, who has been the loudest voice alleging commission corruption, to set the scope of the investigation.
Ranzau agreed to work with Dennis on that.
“We finished the first one, we need to move on to the next step, because we did have a vote to do that,” Dennis said. “I would hope that we follow the same process we did on the first one.”
Commissioners haven’t released details of what was found in the investigation of Scholes, citing confidentiality.
But Howell said he thinks the information the commission has received so far isn’t adequate.
“If we’re going to call it an investigation, there are things we’re going to actually have to investigate to finish up some of the things that are in that report,” Howell said.. “I would ask us not to consider that finished business, but to continue to have a discussion whether we’re satisfied with the report as is. I personally am not.”
Dennis said the investigation had been unbiased and exhaustive, encompassing 45 interviews and more than 100 hours of interview time and documentation.
“I guess I’m rather disturbed we do have commissioners attempting to discredit the investigation,” Dennis said.
He noted that the lawyer who conducted the investigation was selected by former County Counselor Eric Yost.
Dennis had earlier criticized Yost for what he considered a violation of attorney-client confidentiality. Yost had informed Scholes that his FBI cooperation might be behind a quit-or-be-fired ultimatum Dennis gave him.
Yost has said he told Scholes to prevent the commission from committing a crime, and that is exempt from attorney-client privilege.
On Nov. 19, Yost agreed to resign, in exchange for a $77,000 payment to drop any defamation claims he might have against the county or commissioners.
Dennis and Howell crossed swords again Wednesday over the FBI investigation.
Dennis said after a flurry of interviews, it’s been six weeks since the county has heard from the bureau.
“Last year there was an external investigation into Sedgwick County (the FBI’s O’Donnell investigation) and nothing, and I repeat nothing, was found regarding commissioner behavior related to any kind of county decisions or activities,” Dennis said. “Second, that the external whistleblower investigation we’ve heard about, publicly discussed, it’s now been a month and a half since we’ve heard anything on that.”
Howell, however, said the hiatus in FBI-county communication doesn’t mean the investigation is over.
“I agree we have not heard anything in six weeks, I guess, but that does not necessarily mean that’s not something that’s ongoing,” Howell said. “I don’t know where that is, but by design we’re not even supposed to know.”