Topeka Former Kansas Commerce Secretary Antonio Soave alleges in court documents that the governor’s office pressured him to resign shortly after a business partner sued Soave for fraud and other financial crimes.
Soave resigned in June and announced earlier this month that he was running for incumbent Rep. Lynn Jenkins’ 2nd Congressional District seat.
The resignation came two weeks after business partner Paola Ghezzo, an Italian citizen who lives in Lawrence, sued Soave in Johnson County. She alleged he used funds from their Overland Park-based consulting firm to pay personal bills and for expenses arising from state business, The Kansas City Star reported.
Commerce department spokesman Kevin Doel said the agency couldn’t comment on Soave’s resignation because it was a personnel matter.
Gov. Sam Brownback on Thursday denied forcing Soave to quit.
“Uh, no, no,” Brownback said. “He’s a good guy. But you’d need to ask him his own reasons for doing that. He’s a good man.”
Ghezzo was partners with Soave in Capistrano Italia, which offered consulting services to Italian companies wanting to enter foreign markets. She invested $500,000 in the business in 2015, and she alleges in court documents that Soave used that investment “as his own personal piggy bank, in part, to support and finance his own lavish lifestyle.”
Soave claims that Ghezzo threatened to “contact the press and ‘spread bad news’” if he did not reimburse her $425,000 from her investment in Capistrano. Her fraud allegations were relayed to the Commerce Department’s general counsel and Brownback’s office in February, according to Soave’s filing.
In a court filing in April, Soave said he faced a significant push from Brownback’s office to step down.
“Amidst this extreme pressure, Soave chose to resign as Kansas’s Commerce Secretary or be removed from office by the Governor,” the filing from Soave’s attorneys states.
Soave at one point paid himself $8,000 a month at the consulting firm, while generating less than $20,000 in gross revenue after the $500,000 investment, according to Ghezzo’s complaint.
Ghezzo is seeking damages in excess of $150,000, Soave’s removal from his position and the dissolution of the company, with all assets going to her.
In his response denying the allegations, Soave seeks more than $375,000 in damages.
Soave’s attorney, John Duggan, said he and his client “look forward to our day in court showing that the allegations asserted against him are false and that the allegations against the other side are true.”
Ghezzo, then a University of Kansas lecturer on Italian and French, became the Commerce Department’s international corporate liaison within months of Soave’s appointment and remained in that position until June of this year, the same month the lawsuit was filed. The court filing said she was paid $6,000 a month for part-time consulting, although she spent part of the time in Italy visiting family and dealing with a divorce.
Lawmakers said they were unaware of the lawsuit against Soave, but that his resignation came after conflict with the governor’s office during which Soave’s expenses were under scrutiny.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said Brownback’s staff “made it just unbearable on him to do his job and even manipulated to where he had a hard time getting his personal expenses reimbursed.”