Kelly administration opens inquiry into complaint about leadership of KHP aviation unit

Letters sent to Kansas legislators allege misuse of aircraft, question training practices

By: - December 30, 2022 4:38 pm
A Kansas Highway Patrol helicopter

The administration of Gov. Laura Kelly said an inquiry had been launched into allegations of a state employee and “concerned taxpayer” about potential misuse of aircraft by the Kansas Highway Patrol’s aviation unit. The allegations center on pilots obtaining flight credentials of little use to the KHP and of using a helicopter for trips to Kansas City restaurants. (KHP Air Support Unit Twitter account)

TOPEKA — The administration of Gov. Laura Kelly said Friday an inquiry was launched into allegations Kansas Highway Patrol pilots misused state funds by deploying aircraft for personal reasons and by obtaining advanced flight training not required of the law enforcement agency.

Impetus for the decision was summarized in two letters sent to members of the Kansas Legislature raising questions about management of KHP’s Troop T. The letters complained KHP personnel were piling up unnecessary certifications, including night-vision goggle instruction, more useful to a pilot in a future job rather than on behalf of the highway patrol. The letters alleged at one point 85% of KHP flights were for training instead of law enforcement activities or transportation for state officials.

The letters also asserted the KHP helicopter was used to shuttle the agency’s employees to restaurants in the Kansas City area. A KHP pilot was accused in the correspondence of landing a chopper in his back yard.

“The governor’s office takes these allegations seriously,” said Brianna Johnson, spokeswoman for the governor. “We are looking into them to determine their legitimacy and to ensure taxpayer funds are being used properly.”

The aviation division is led by KHP Capt. Jason Vanderweide, who has been among advocates for legislative approval of a plan to buy two new aircraft and acquire a Citation jet for the KHP. The 2022 Legislature approved $20 million to replace the state’s King Air 350, a propeller-driven aircraft relied upon to move state officials.

KHP headquarters didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the inquiry and allegations. KHP is led by Col. Herman Jones, who was appointed by Kelly after resignation of Jones’ predecessor, Col. Mark Bruce. In 2019, Bruce was involved in a scandal tied to allegations of domestic violence against his second in command at KHP, Lt. Col. Randy Moon. Both left the state law enforcement agency.

Jones, who has been the target of a sexual harassment complaint at KHP, said in August he wouldn’t resign despite a call by the Kansas State Troopers Association for a change in leadership.

The initial letter to legislators about problems within the KHP’s aviation unit was purportedly written by a state employee and “concerned taxpayer” who sought anonymity for fear of retaliation by KHP. The author asserted KHP officers in Topeka were “so involved in getting flight training and advanced ratings for themselves and few other pilots that they have lost vision of what KHP aircraft’s purpose is.”

The author claimed KHP’s aviation unit had been transformed into a “pilot training center for advanced flight ratings that are not required nor are beneficial to KHP, but they will make their resumes look good for future employment.”

The second piece of correspondence sent to legislators raised questions about training and conduct of KHP helicopter pilots.

“Why is the helicopter being used to transport KHP pilots to obtain training that is not required by KHP policy?” the letter says. “The helicopter has been used to transport pilots to Kansas City multiple times for this training as well as for the pilots to take written tests.”

The document says this “taxi service” included multiple flights to Miami County and elsewhere in the Kansas City region for restaurant meals.

“Why is a certain pilot landing the helicopter in his backyard when out on training flights,” the second letter said. “There is so much money being wasted on training and rating that is not required for most of their pilots.”

In addition, the letter said the entire maintenance department left KHP because of concern about management practices that could be illegal or unethical.

“KHP aircraft was created and has served as a valuable asset but the current administrators are abusing state funds for their personal gain and the person gain of their buddies,” the letter said.

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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.