Politics & Government

Ousted Sedgwick County counselor Eric Yost faces state ethics probe over FBI controversy

Attorney reads statement on behalf of his client, Sedgwick County Counselor Eric Yost

Attorney Austin Parker reads a statement on behalf of Sedgwick County Counselor Eric Yost, who was accused of violating attorney-client privilege by Commission Chairman David Dennis.
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Attorney Austin Parker reads a statement on behalf of Sedgwick County Counselor Eric Yost, who was accused of violating attorney-client privilege by Commission Chairman David Dennis.

Ousted Sedgwick County counselor Eric Yost is facing a disciplinary investigation over complaints that he violated attorney-client confidentiality during an FBI investigation of the County Commission last year, state and county officials confirmed Thursday.

A state investigation has found probable cause to pursue the complaint that Yost violated ethics rules that govern lawyers, Disciplinary Administrator Stan Hazlett said.

“We will in the near future be filing a formal complaint in which the allegations will be set out and it will be set for a hearing,” Hazlett said.

Both the complaint and hearing will be public. Yost could face sanctions against his law license, Hazlett said.

Yost could not be reached for comment at his office Thursday.

He has previously stated through an attorney that he didn’t violate lawyer conduct rules because he acted to prevent the County Commission from illegally firing former County Manager Michael Scholes.

Preventing illegal acts is an exception to the attorney-client privilege rule, he said.

He has also said that as county counselor, his duty was to protect the citizens of Sedgwick County, not individual commissioners.

The first public indication of the state investigation came Wednesday during a meeting in which commissioners voted to waive attorney-client privilege to allow Deputy County Counselor Karen Powell “to provide testimony to the Kansas Disciplinary Administrator in a matter involving a former county employee.”

The waiver was on the commission’s consent agenda, a list of purportedly routine and noncontroversial business items that are approved in bulk with a single vote and without discussion.

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County Commission Chairman David Dennis and former Commissioner David Unruh confirmed Thursday that they and at least one other person had filed complaints with Hazlett’s office against Yost over his handling of the move to oust Scholes.

“I’m not on any crusade,” said Unruh, who retired from the commission in January. “But something nasty happened and I reported it. Now it’s up to them (the state investigators).”

Both commissioners also confirmed that they had been notified by mail early this month of the probable-cause finding against Yost.

Commissioner Michael O’Donnell, the third commissioner in the majority that moved to oust Scholes, said he had not filed a complaint against Yost.

Yost served as a district court judge from 1996 to 2015, when he was hired to run the county’s legal department as county counselor. He resigned in November after accepting a $77,000 settlement approved by the commission.

Scholes followed Yost out the door in December after accepting a $205,427 settlement.

The disciplinary complaint is the latest and possibly final chapter in a saga that began in 2017.

At the time, O’Donnell was under investigation by the FBI. He was indicted on and ultimately acquitted of federal campaign-finance fraud charges.

In late 2017, Unruh asked Yost if the commission could fire Scholes for disloyalty, for providing information about commissioners to the FBI.

Yost initially said yes, but later sent Unruh a memo reversing the verbal opinion and telling Unruh that firing Scholes for that reason could violate federal laws protecting government whistleblowers.

Unruh didn’t pursue the matter further.

But friction continued to build between Scholes and key county employees, prompting several to find new jobs or retire.

It came to a head last October, with Dennis giving Scholes a quit-or-be-fired ultimatum, telling him he’d lost the support of a majority of the commissioners.

At that point, Yost, who was advising the commission, called Scholes and told him that Unruh had asked about firing him for cooperating with the FBI. He advised Scholes not to resign.

Unknown to Yost, Scholes recorded their conversation.

After he became aware of that phone call, Dennis publicly accused Yost of violating attorney-client confidentiality during a commission meeting on Oct. 24.

About a week later, Yost’s attorney held a news conference where he disclosed the existence of the Scholes recording and read a statement in which Yost defended his actions. Yost was suspended and later resigned after the settlement was offered.

With Scholes unwilling to quit, the commission majority hired outside counsel to investigate his tenure as county manager.

That investigation turned up evidence that Scholes, an Army general before he came to the county, had misused county resources and had staff falsify an employee review to help a friend get a job.

The misuse of resources allegation involved Scholes dispatching a member of the county staff to take pictures of him and his family for their personal use.

On three separate occasions, Scholes directed the staff member to photograph him, his wife, his son-in-law and his father, according to the report.

Only one of those instances was at a public event, a military veterans’ exposition in August 2017, where Scholes’ father was the featured speaker. Those photos were never used by the county for any public purpose, the report said.

The falsified personnel document was made for the benefit of Scholes’ friend Tom Golden, the report said.

Golden, a helicopter pilot who served with Scholes in the Army, worked for him for seven months in 2016 and 2017 as deputy county manager — although Scholes often referred to Golden as his chief of staff, a military title.

Golden was forced out over friction with the staff and comments about a commissioner, the report said. He received a severance settlement of about $40,000.

After he left, Golden applied for a job where his prospective employer wanted copies of Golden’s performance reviews as part of the hiring process.

Scholes hadn’t done a performance review during Golden’s short time with the county, but he had staff falsify and back-date an outstanding review for Golden, the report concluded.

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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.