June 24, 2024

Keeping Media and Government Accountable.

Goddard school lawsuit raises ethics concern

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Following the announcement of a lawsuit against vaping manufacturers Juul at a press conference, a journalist asked Goddard Superintendent Justin Henry, “I noticed a lawyer with the law firm shares your last name. Are you related?”

Henry took in the question and paused before responding.

“He is my brother,” said Henry.

According to the Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, “Members of a board of education and its employees are subject to the governmental ethics statutes.”

These statutes read in part, “No local governmental officer or employee shall, in the capacity of such an officer or employee, make or participate in the making of a contract with any person or business by which the officer or employee is employed or in whose business the officer or employee has a substantial interest.”

Schmidt says the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission is charged with administering the government ethics statutes. But Mark Skoglund, Executive Director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission, says the commission is only tasked by the legislature to handle ethics complaints at the state level. An ethics complaint or violation by a school superintendent would be the jurisdiction of the local county prosecutor.

“At the local level if they filed a complaint, we wouldn’t have authority anyway,” says Skoglund.

The commission does issue opinions on ethics complaints at the local level, as seen in the 2018 annual report. However, the commission says it cannot enforce ethics violations locally based on a 1994 case in which the Ethics Commission decided that only county and district attorneys may handle local complaints.

At no point was the relationship volunteered by the district or the superintendent. It took questioning by the media for the relationship to come to light. Speaking to The Sentinel this week, Henry maintains that it was not up to him to hire his brother.

“I can’t hire anyone; the board has to hire them. And when the board authorizes the firm to represent the district, we are not spending dollars to do this,” says Henry.

The district is represented by Wagstaff & Cartmell out of Kansas City, Missouri. Thomas Cartmell, one of the named partners is handling the lawsuit for USD 265, along with Jonathan Kieffer. Henry claims he has had no pushback in hiring his brother’s firm because he says “we went out of our way to make sure everybody understands that we are not spending dollars on that.”

The district may not be spending money upfront to hire Henry’s brother’s firm because Wagstaff & Cartmell took the case on a contingency but his brother and the firm will definitely benefit if the lawsuit is successful.  It was also confirmed at the press conference that no other law firm was approached to handle the lawsuit, which understandably leads to ethics concerns.

Henry claims he has done nothing wrong in hiring his brother’s law firm because the school district is not paying for the lawsuit.

“It’s not like I would necessarily hire my son to go out and mow the lawn at the school,” says Henry.

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