Politics & Government

Wichita mayor to cooperate with DA after complaint sparked by Eagle story

Complaints about Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell are being investigated after a Wichita Eagle story revealed he steered what could become the largest contract in the city’s history to his friends, according to Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett.

“The district attorney has not reached out to me to show me what the concern is,” Longwell wrote The Eagle in an email. “Naturally I will cooperate with any request for information.”

The investigation of concerns related to a sitting mayor is a first since Bennett was sworn into office.

The Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office received multiple emails from a single individual setting forth concerns related to The Eagle’s story, Bennett said in an email statement Thursday.

“The concerns expressed are being investigated by the Office of the District Attorney,” Bennett wrote.

It’s unclear what those concerns are or who filed the complaint.

“That is not something we will be releasing at this time,” Georgia Webb, office manager for the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office, wrote in an email.

“Since District Attorney Marc Bennett was sworn into office in January, 2013, this office has not been asked to address concerns related to a sitting mayor,” Webb wrote in an email in response to The Eagle’s questions.

The Eagle story published Sunday revealed undisclosed relationships between Longwell and contractors on the Wichita Water Partners team that was awarded the contract for the city’s new water treatment facility.

An 11-member city selection committee unanimously recommended awarding the contract to Jacobs Engineering, one of the nation’s leading design firms that specializes in water treatment plants.

Instead, at Longwell’s urging, the Wichita City Council gave it to Wichita Water Partners, a group that has less experience designing large water plants.

Longwell, who is up for election in November, said he is friends with the presidents of two companies on the Wichita Water Partners team. By directing city money to his friends, he appears to have violated a city law that says council members “shall refrain” from “making decisions involving friends” or “using their influence as members of the governing body in attempts to secure contracts, zoning or other favorable municipal action for friends.”

Webb said that the District Attorney’s Office does not have jurisdiction over city ordinances. The city’s attorney, Jennifer Magana, said City Council members police themselves on that. The council did not discuss that city ordinance at its Tuesday meeting.

The District Attorney’s Office has jurisdiction over state law, Webb said.

Part of The Eagle’s investigation revealed Longwell did not disclose a $1,000 gift on a state ethics form for local officials that he filed in February. On the section on gifts with an aggregate value of $500 or more received from individuals or businesses in the past 12 months, Longwell checked that he had nothing to report.

Longwell told The Eagle that the president of one of the companies involved in Wichita Water Partners paid his entry fee in a $1,000 per person charity golf tournament last year.

Mark Skoglund, the executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission, told The Eagle on Monday that the state commission does not have jurisdiction to hear or determine complaints about local officials and that any of those complaints would be handled by the District Attorney’s Office.

The District Attorney’s Office would not confirm whether that is being investigated.

“The Office of the District Attorney does not discuss details of pending investigations,” Webb wrote.

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Chance Swaim won the Betty Gage Holland Award in 2018 for distinguished service to honor and protect the integrity of public dialogue on America’s college campuses. He has been a news reporter for The Wichita Eagle since 2018. You can contact him at 316-269-6752 and cswaim@wichitaeagle.com.