Kansas audit finds no evidence of rule violations in dismissal of two KHP majors

State trooper association alleges terminations to be simple retaliation

By: - November 30, 2020 2:52 pm
A Kansas Department of Administration inquiry shows Kansas Highway Patrol insiders engaged in a coup attempt to oust KHP Col. Herman Jones and four other top KHP officers considered loyal to him. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

A Kansas Department of Administration inquiry shows Kansas Highway Patrol insiders engaged in a coup attempt to oust KHP Col. Herman Jones and four other top KHP officers considered loyal to him. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A legislative state audit revealed no smoking-gun evidence Monday that Kansas Highway Patrol policy was broken when two KHP majors lost their jobs on heels of their support for allegations of gender discrimination and sexual harassment against the agency’s top official.

The Kansas Legislative Post Audit review sought by a Republican House member affirmed the Gov. Laura Kelly administration’s position the officers weren’t ousted in violation of state law or procedure. KHP majors are at-will employees outside the state’s classified worker system, which meant they could be dismissed at any time for any reason by the agency.

The staffing maneuver in July was unusual because no KHP major had been shown the door in a quarter century, let alone two on the same day.

Justin Stowe, who leads the auditing arm of the Kansas Legislature, told a joint House and Senate committee with oversight of audits the limited review didn’t delve into any justification for leadership changes at KHP imposed by superintendent Herman Jones.

“We looked at the administrative procedures,” Stowe said. “We did not look at other types of issues surrounding these cases. We were tasked with simply looking at whether the highway patrol followed applicable state laws and regulations. We found they actually had done that.”

On Nov. 2, the auditing division provided KHP with a draft report of the audit. KHP chose not to submit a response for inclusion in the public document.

Rep. John Barker, an Abilene Republican, requested the KHP audit after legislators noted concern about whether the dismissals were handled in accordance with agency policy.

Four months ago, Kelly had announced KHP Majors Scott Harrington and Josh Kellerman were no longer employees of the statewide law enforcement agency. Action regarding the majors was part of an attempt to improve KHP “culture and structure,” Jones said.

However, the Kansas State Troopers Association said Kellerman and Harrington were fired in retaliation for supporting three women who forwarded complaints about unwelcome interaction with Jones. The association said termination of these high-ranking officers was “designed to silence these majors and all future complaints.”

Three KHP employees had alleged Jones engaged in sexual harassment through unwanted physical contact or comments, including slapping their backs or shoulders, hugging and standing close.

An internal review by the Kansas Department of Administration as well as an external assessment by a law firm didn’t substantiate allegations of the women nor a separate claim that Jones misued state aircraft for personal business.

When those conclusions were made public during the summer, the governor described Jones as the “right man for the job” of restoring faith in KHP leadership.

Jones, appointed by Kelly in 2019 after serving as sheriff of Shawnee County, replaced the KHP’s previous superintendent who was mired in a separate scandal.

Former KHP superindentent Mark Bruce, a holdover from the administrations of Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer, was fired after Bruce decided against disciplining a top KHP officer despite a Missouri police report indicating he engaged in an incident of domestic violence.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.