Politics & Government

Sedgwick County Manager Michael Scholes is out after 3-2 commission vote

Commissioners discuss Scholes, FBI

Sedgwick County commissioners David Dennis and Jim Howell have differing perspectives on the ousting of County Manager Michael Scholes and an FBI investigation into whether Scholes was targeted for cooperating with agents.
Up Next
Sedgwick County commissioners David Dennis and Jim Howell have differing perspectives on the ousting of County Manager Michael Scholes and an FBI investigation into whether Scholes was targeted for cooperating with agents.

Sedgwick County has reached a settlement ending the controversial tenure of County Manager Michael Scholes.

On Wednesday, the County Commission approved an agreement paying Scholes $205,427 to leave.

In exchange, he’s agreed to drop any claims against the county related to his departure.

Scholes is the second top county official forced out by commission action in the past month. On Nov. 19, the commission settled out County Counselor Eric Yost for a $77,000 payment.

Three commissioners — David Dennis, Michael O’Donnell and David Unruh — had sought to force Scholes to leave.

Their stated reason was an exodus of high-level county employees and the result of an unreleased investigation by an outside counsel into Scholes’ management.

Some commissioners say that investigation confirmed a toxic environment where employees felt disrespected and at times threatened by Scholes’ management style.

But Scholes’ status also became intertwined with the FBI investigation that resulted in O’Donnell facing federal charges of campaign wire fraud and money laundering. O’Donnell continues to serve pending a trial scheduled for January.

At one point last winter, Unruh asked Yost if the commission could fire Scholes for disloyalty for providing information to the FBI. Yost initially said yes, but then reversed and said it could violate federal whistleblower protection law if they did that.

When that legal memo came to light, it touched off another investigation by the FBI that may or may not be ongoing into whether commissioners illegally targeted Scholes for cooperating in the federal investigation.

Dennis and Commissioner Jim Howell, who have both been interviewed as witnesses by the FBI, crossed swords after Wednesday’s meeting over where that investigation stands.

Dennis said the commission majority that pushed to hire Scholes in the first place — Howell, Richard Ranzau and former commissioner Karl Peterjohn — “made a lot of decisions that turned out to be very costly to our taxpayers. And when you have these same commissioners (Ranzau and Howell) supporting multiple threats to sue the county, it just wasn’t right to cost us even more.

“Those same commissioners have continued for more than two months to make unproven allegations about other commissioners including me . . . It’s now been nine weeks, more than two months. There’s no further external investigation (by the FBI), even if they don’t want to admit that.”

Howell said he thinks Dennis is wrong about that and noted the investigation of O’Donnell took more than a year.

“The FBI obviously does not give anyone their time table,” Howell said. “They’ve not stated they’re complete. They’ve not stated they’re not going to do anything. I know I spent several hours interviewing with the FBI.

“They asked lots of questions that alluded to things I didn’t have much information about, some things I did . . . If they’ve hit a conclusion that nothing’s going to happen at this point, I guess I’d be surprised. It’s my assumption this is actually ongoing and just because we haven’t heard anything doesn’t mean anything at all.”

The settlement with Scholes was approved on a 3-2 vote with Unruh, Ranzau and Howell voting yes. Dennis and O’Donnell voted no.

It marked a shift in the majority as both Howell and Ranzau had resisted the effort to oust Scholes.

Howell and Ranzau said they voted to settle largely because they thought Scholes had a case against the county and it would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more to fight it.

After the meeting, O’Donnell said he voted against the severance deal because he thought it was too much money.

Scholes’ contract guaranteed him six month’s pay if he were fired without cause and nothing if he was fired with cause. The settlement is equivalent to 13 months salary.

“I felt if we had a contract, then he should get what he was legally entitled to and what the county was legally bound to pay,” O’Donnell said.

Scholes’ resignation was effective as of last Friday. He has until this Friday to change his mind under federal law, acting County Counselor Mike Pepoon said.

Scholes could not be reached for comment. Before Wednesday’s announcement, he changed his profile on the social media site LinkedIn from Sedgwick County manager to “transitioning executive.”

The profile said he was “Moving to the Greater Nashville area looking for an executive position with a company needing a leader with over 36+ years experience.”

Scholes started working for Sedgwick County in Nov. 15 after a long career in the Army, where he had risen to the rank of brigadier general.

He returned to civilian life after a lengthy deployment as chief of staff in Kosovo, saying he wanted to be able to settle with his family into a stateside community after multiple moves and deployment.

Scholes replaced William Buchanan, who had retired after 24 years as county manager amid friction with the small-government conservative commission majority of Ranzau, Peterjohn and Howell. They took the reins following the 2014 election.

Unruh said he didn’t like the idea of hiring Scholes from the beginning, but he voted “yes” because he knew he was in the minority and wanted to preserve commission unity.

The hiring also was controversial because the commissioners decided to offer the job to Scholes in a closed-door meeting.

In 2016, Dennis defeated Peterjohn, moving the commission majority back toward a more moderate form of conservatism that is less focused on cutting government services and budgets.

All the current commissioners are Republicans.

In January, Unruh, who is retiring, will be replaced by current Wichita City Councilman Pete Meitzner, also a Republican.

One seat will swing from Republican to Democratic following Lacey Cruse’s win over Ranzau in November.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle

Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.