Senate President Ty Masterson addresses reporters following the decision by Senate Republicans to strip Sen. Gene Suellentrop of his majority leader title. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Senate Republicans ousted Gene Suellentrop from his majority leader title in a secret meeting Friday after he refused to resign over his late-night drunken escapade through Topeka.
Senate President Ty Masterson said he personally asked Suellentrop to resign, but the Wichita Republican refused. The 29-member caucus forced Suellentrop out of the leadership role by a 22-4 vote, leaving the position vacant until lawmakers return in May.
Sen. Rick Kloos, a Republican from Topeka, forced the vote after new details emerged in unsealed court documents about Suellentrop’s March 16 arrest. Suellentrop faces a felony charge for fleeing police, as well as misdemeanors for driving under the influence of alcohol and reckless driving.
“Too often people think that because you’re a politician, you’re going to get away with things,” Kloos said. “And so we’re holding each other (accountable). This was a good move and it was at the right time.”
Authorities said the 69-year-old Suellentrop had twice the legal limit for alcohol in his blood when he led police on a high-speed chase while going the wrong way on Interstate 70 through downtown Topeka. He narrowly avoided multiple collisions before he was stopped around 1 a.m.
After his arrest, Suellentrop called a Kansas Highway Patrol officer “donut boy” and said he could take him in a fight because Suellentrop played sports in high school.
The three members of the Shawnee County delegation — Kloos, Sen. Brenda Dietrich and Sen. Kristen O’Shea — told reporters they felt a personal responsibility to hold Suellentrop accountable because the alleged crimes happened in their county.
“I think we came to the decision today that we’ve put this off long enough,” Dietrich said. “As difficult as this is, we have more information now. And I think we came together as colleagues to make a good decision.”
Masterson said he was disappointed Suellentrop didn’t resign. The two remain close, Masterson said, and the forced removal from the leadership post made it a sad day.
“Take your most shameful decision — put it on the news every night,” Masterson said.
Masterson gathered Senate Republicans for a closed-door meeting after lawmakers adjourned Friday at the close of the regular session.
Republicans hold a 29-11 majority in the Senate. Caucus meetings are typically open to reporters, but lawmakers can close them because they carved out an exemption for themselves in state open meetings law.
Doug Anstaett, a lobbyist for the Kansas Press Association, said no other government body in Kansas could convene a majority of members to discuss public business.
“Why in a cases like this, with such widespread community interest, would they close the doors on the public?” Anstaett said.
The majority leader holds tremendous authority in deciding which bills the Senate will consider. The leader also holds a position on the Legislative Coordinating Council, which holds the power to override the governor’s executive orders.
“If you’re making the decision about who is going to be in that position, that is a high interest for the public to know how that decision was made,” Anstaett said.
Open meetings law doesn’t allow a governing body to enter executive session for a personnel matter involving an elected official.
After his arrest, Suellentrop transferred some of his duties as majority leader to Sen. Larry Alley, a Republican from Winfield who holds the title of assistant majority leader.
Suellentrop will remain part of the Republican caucus, Masterson said.
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