Archive for Saturday, October 18, 2003

Judge suspends Topeka mayor

Felker removed from office pending lawsuit over campaign finance allegation

October 18, 2003

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A district judge on Friday suspended Topeka Mayor Butch Felker from office over allegations that he violated Kansas campaign finance laws and the public trust.

Shawnee County Dist. Atty. Robert Hecht filed a lawsuit last month seeking to have Felker removed from office and asked Shawnee County District Judge Eric Rosen to suspend Felker while that lawsuit is pending.

Hecht accused Felker of falsifying a campaign finance report from his 2001 mayoral campaign to mask questionable donations and the identities of some contributors. The state Governmental Ethics Commission already had fined Felker $7,500 in July.

"Without judging the ultimate outcome of whether to remove defendant from office, the question remains whether the city can most effectively be governed by a person under a cloud of credible suspicion of criminal violations involving moral turpitude," Rosen wrote.

However, Rosen dismissed the other allegations in the lawsuit, which could go to trial in November or December.

"This case is difficult in the sense that it puts a cloud over city governance, and it's important that cloud be removed as soon as possible," Hecht told The Topeka Capital-Journal.

In his ruling, Rosen said the campaign finance laws existed to instill public trust and "be free of insinuation of corruption or improper influences."

"The trust the public has placed on an elected official is damaged if the public learns that such a person has acted unethically or illegally," Rosen wrote.

The district attorney also had alleged that Felker acted improperly when he entered into an agreement that paid a former municipal employee $113,000 over eight months after that employee had resigned in February 2002.

Hecht also said Felker improperly gave unlimited city spending authority to a top official of the now-defunct Kansas International Museum and used a city credit card to provide $5,000 for the museum in January 2002.

In his decision, Rosen said he dismissed those three allegations because Felker was operating within the power granted the mayor under the city's charter and did not seek to enrich himself.

Felker, who was in his City Hall office after the ruling, declined to comment. His attorney, Mike Francis was surprised by Rosen's decision.

"I had hoped that the judge, although there was a conviction for a campaign finance violation, that he wouldn't suspend him for that," Francis said.

Francis said the mayor would step aside and that he wouldn't challenge Rosen's ruling. Francis said allowing the ouster petition to move forward would be quicker than his client appealing Rosen's suspension order.

Council member Duane Pomeroy, who serves as deputy mayor, will become acting mayor while the ouster lawsuit is pending.

Kansas House Speaker Doug Mays, a former City Council member, called Rosen's ruling "a dark day for Topeka."

However, Mays added about Felker, "I wouldn't write his political epitaph yet. He has a way of bouncing back."

Felker was the city's parks commissioner from 1975 to 1985, then mayor from 1989 to 1997. He declined to run in 1997, citing health reasons, but won a third term in 2001.

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