Citing conflicts, District Attorney Valdez wants counsel to the Kansas Board for Discipline of Attorneys to be recused
photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World
Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez is requesting that the counsel to the Kansas Board for Discipline of Attorneys be recused from matters involving a complaint filed by a special prosecutor against Valdez, due to the counsel’s having a “direct conflict” of interest.
Valdez’s motion, filed Wednesday but not released to the Journal-World until Friday, was in response to an order last week from the hearing panel directing Valdez to advise whether she objected to Krystal Vokins serving as counsel for the board.
The panel issued the order after Valdez alleged in her answer to the special prosecutor’s complaint that Vokins was the “best friend” of Alice Walker, a former prosecutor in Valdez’s office and current coworker of Vokins’. Walker is also listed as a witness for special prosecutor Kimberly Bonifas’ case against Valdez.
Bonifas, as the Journal-World has reported, has filed a complaint arguing that Valdez has violated four sections of the state code that governs attorney conduct: making a statement that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge; engaging in undignified or discourteous conduct degrading to a tribunal; engaging in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice; and engaging in any other conduct that adversely reflects on the lawyer’s fitness to practice law.
The allegations largely stem from Valdez’s interactions with Douglas County Chief Judge James McCabria, including that she called him a liar and a sexist, implied that he was racist, sent him inappropriate texts saying he should be “ashamed” of himself, and that she yelled and cursed about him to the extent that multiple attorneys in her office resigned under the stress.
Valdez’s attorney, Stephen Angermayer, says in the motion for recusal that Vokins, who advises the three-member panel that will preside over Valdez’s disciplinary hearing, and Walker are best friends — and also that Tai Vokins, Krystal’s spouse, was a longtime acquaintance of — going back to middle school — and was previously in an office-sharing arrangement with Valdez’s deputy district attorney, Josh Seiden, before Seiden joined Valdez’s office. And Tai Vokins will also be a witness in the disciplinary matter, the motion states.
The situation has resulted in a “direct conflict,” as well as the appearance of conflict, both of which are prohibited by the Kansas Code of Judicial Conduct, the motion states. It is also prohibited for a lawyer to represent a client if the representation involves a conflict with another client “or by a personal interest of the lawyer.”
Valdez has specifically alleged that Tai Vokins met with Seiden shortly after Valdez won her primary election in August 2020 and told Seiden that his wife, Krystal, had asked him “to do his best to preserve Ms. Walker’s employment” with the DA’s office after the transition from then-DA Charles Branson, for whom Walker had worked, to Valdez. Tai Vokins spoke “at great length” about Walker’s qualifications and also indicated that his wife and Walker were “best friends,” according to the motion.
Walker, who had worked in the DA’s office since 2011, was kept on, but left the office in April 2021, just three months after Valdez was sworn in. In her response to the special prosecutor’s complaint against her, Valdez criticized Walker and other Branson hold-overs over their job performance and refusal to get on board with Valdez’s new way of doing things.
After leaving the DA’s office, Walker accepted a job as a deputy disciplinary administrator for the Office of the Disciplinary Administrator, becoming a coworker of Krystal Vokins’.
“Public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the proceedings could be eroded,” Valdez’s motion states, and there could be an appearance of impropriety if Krystal Vokins is called on to advise the hearing panel while being “co-employed” by the ODA.
The motion says that Krystal Vokins, in addition to being counsel to the Kansas Board for Discipline of Attorneys, is a staff member of the ODA, “which investigated and later filed a formal complaint against District Attorney Valdez after a two-and-a-half-year investigation.”
Vokins’ job as counsel to the board involves advising the board and hearing panels at each stage of the process in a disciplinary matter.
The special prosecutor, from Wichita, was appointed months ago because of a conflict in the ODA’s office. But the motion for Vokins to recuse as counsel to the board did not come until this week.
The three-member panel that will decide Valdez’s case consists of three Wichita-based attorneys: Stacy L. Ortega, Gaye Tibbets and Sylvia B. Penner.
The case is set for a prehearing conference on Zoom at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. Bonifas will be expected to file an answer to Valdez’s motion for recusal by Monday. The pre-hearing conference is public, and the Zoom link can be individually obtained by contacting Krystal Vokins by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 785-435-8200. Recording the hearing or taking screenshots will not be allowed.
Valdez’s public disciplinary hearing is scheduled for Oct. 12-13 in Topeka. It’s not yet clear whether that hearing will be accessible to the public in person or just via Zoom.