Politics & Government

DA asks Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell to report past gifts; won’t file charges

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett is not filing charges against Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell. But he is asking him to report past gifts he received from a company that’s helping design Wichita’s new water treatment plant.

Bennett’s investigation into Longwell’s gifts started after an Eagle story said that Longwell steered what could become the largest contract in the city’s history to his friends and golf partners.

Those friends and their companies spent hundreds of dollars entertaining the mayor.

Because the District Attorney’s Office only enforces state law, Bennett’s opinion did not address the city’s ethics code that prohibits council members from voting on contracts involving friends nor did his finding address the fact that some of those gifts came during the open bidding period for the water contract.

Instead, Bennett’s investigation looked into whether Longwell should have disclosed gifts he received from companies on the team that won the contract. Bennett’s findings, summarized in 20 pages, were released Thursday evening.

Longwell did not return messages Thursday evening.

Longwell accepted gifts worth hundreds of dollars from Professional Engineering Consultants and Wildcat Constructors in the past three years, Bennett found.

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Longwell told The Eagle last month that the presidents of those companies are his friends and that their golf outings and dinners were not related to city business. Those friends didn’t personally pay for a majority of the outings. In most cases, the golf and dinners were filed as business expenses by the companies, according to Bennett’s findings.

For example, in September 2018 — while the city was deciding who should get the water plant contract — Wildcat’s parent company, Sherwood Construction, paid for Longwell to play in a three-day golf tournament at Wichita Country Club.

In October, the project still being decided, Wildcat paid $1,000 for Longwell to play in a charitable golf tournament at Flint Hills National Golf Club. According to a receipt obtained by The Eagle under a records request, $895 of the fee was tax deductible. Since most of that $1,000 fee went to charity, it would not count toward the $500 per year reporting limit set by state law, the findings said.

Longwell also played multiple times at Rolling Hills Country Club on PEC’s corporate membership at the private golf club. The company also paid for his golf cart. And PEC paid for three golf trips to Guthrie, Okla.

Bennett found that Longwell failed to disclose gifts worth more than $500 in the form of “goods or services” in 2016 from Professional Engineering Consultants, a local engineering firm on the Wichita Water Partners team that got the contract for the water plant. In 2017 and 2018, Bennett found, the gifts were less than $500 and did not have to be reported under state law.

“Given the pending election, I will not make any additional comments,” Bennett wrote in an email to The Eagle.

DA investigation into gifts

The District Attorney’s Office confirmed to The Eagle early this month that it was investigating allegations brought by an individual as a result of The Eagle’s story, which detailed golf outings, trips and dinners paid for by contractors on the Wichita Water Partners team. Longwell was instrumental awarding the contract to that team instead of a more experienced team that had been unanimously recommended by the city’s selection committee.

Bennett made no mention of how the contract was awarded.

Bennett reached his conclusion not to pursue charges in part because state statutes aren’t clear on “financial interactions” between local office holders and members of the public, he wrote.

“Unfortunately, many operative words and phrases are not defined.”

The operative phases left undefined under Kansas law are “goods or services” and “combination of businesses,” Bennett wrote.

Longwell received lunches, dinners, travel, hotel stays and golf outings from companies on the Wichita Water Partners team, according to Bennett’s summary of facts in the case. But since the state doesn’t have a clear definition that ties PEC and Wildcat together legally on that team, their gifts to the mayor were considered separately.

“Given the failure of Kansas Statutes Annotated 75-4301a to define ‘goods or services,’ the Mayor explained to an investigator with the Office of the District Attorney that he did not believe a round of golf constituted ‘goods or services,’” Bennett wrote.

“And while I am confident, having exhaustively researched the issue, that, as an act of entertainment, golf qualifies as ‘goods or services’ under Kansas law, it is also true that . . . (state law) governing Substantial Interest Form filings, offers little guidance,” Bennett 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.