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Archive for Saturday, November 1, 2003

Panel denies former troopers’ retaliation claim

Three say they were punished in 1993 for ticketing overweight farm trucks

November 1, 2003

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— A legislative committee on Friday rejected claims totaling $1.1 million from three former Kansas Highway Patrol captains who argued the patrol retaliated against them a decade ago for wanting to ticket overweight farm trucks.

Making the claims were John Connelly, of Wichita; Paul Wade, of Topeka; and Melvin Wedermyer, of Hays. They left the patrol in May 1993 rather than accept new assignments when their truck inspection unit was absorbed within existing patrol troops.

They and another patrol officer, William Barrett, objected to what they said were directions from then-Supt. Lonnie McCollum and then-Gov. Joan Finney not to ticket overweight farm trucks. All four argued the patrol eliminated their jobs as punishment.

The patrol said it was eliminating their jobs to save money because of budget pressures and that there was no retaliation. In 1993, the state Civil Service Board sided with the patrol, but in 1999, a Shawnee County District Court jury found in favor of all four men, awarding them a total of $1.3 million.

Two years later, the Kansas Supreme Court reversed the verdict for Connelly, Wade and Wedermyer, saying that, because they were part of the state system, they could not sue the state after the Civil Service Board had ruled.

That led the men to take their case to the Legislature's Joint Committee on Claims Against the State.

On voice votes Friday, the committee refused to recommend that money for the men be included in the next state budget. They still can go to the full Legislature after it convenes Jan. 12, but getting the money will be more difficult without the panel's endorsement.

A key issue for committee members was the former captains' refusal to accept different jobs within the patrol.

"None of them were fired or laid off," said Sen. Mark Gilstrap, D-Kansas City, Kan.

Their attorney, Alan Rupe, of Wichita, said the men were being punished for speaking out.

"What is left is a wrong that has not been righted," Rupe said.

But Assistant Atty. Gen. Harry Kennedy argued that the men were simply trying to retry their case.

"They're just wrong in this matter," he said.

Connelly is seeking $466,569, for lost wages, emotional distress and mental anguish, and Wade, $495,449 for the same things. Wedermyer seeks only compensation for lost wages, $152,844.

The case has its roots in the fall harvest of 1992, when a farmer in Republic County had a confrontation with one of Wedermyer's troopers. That led, Wedermyer said, to a series of conversations with patrol leaders about handling overweight farm trucks.

A 1993 investigation by then-Atty. Gen. Bob Stephan, which found no violations of Kansas law, said there was no such evidence but said McCollum had testified that he said, "tell your people not to be where the farmers are."

Some committee members appeared sympathetic to the three former captains.

"I find it difficult to believe that these gentlemen made it all up," said Rep. Bonnie Huy, R-Wichita.

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