Republicans oust powerful Kansas lawmaker charged with DUI from his leadership position
photo by: AP Photo/Andy Tsubasa Field
Updated at 8:08 p.m. Friday:
TOPEKA — Republicans on Friday ousted a powerful Kansas lawmaker charged with drunken driving from his leadership job following the release of a document saying he taunted the Highway Patrol trooper who arrested him and called the officer “donut boy.”
Senate Majority Leader Gene Suellentrop’s removal was the first time in at least several decades that a Kansas legislative leader’s colleagues pushed someone out before the end of his or her term. Suellentrop, a Wichita Republican, had been set to be majority leader through 2024.
Republican senators voted 22-4 to remove Suellentrop during a 50-minute meeting that was closed to reporters and the public. Senate President Ty Masterson disclosed the vote afterward, saying Republican senators would have an acting majority leader until late May, when they will elect a new majority leader.
“These are just heavy issues,” Masterson, another Wichita-area Republican, told reporters after the meeting. “We build relationships in this chamber, so it’s kind of a sad day.”
Suellentrop will remain in the seat for his Wichita district. Masterson said whether Suellentrop retains the seat is up to his constituents.
Kansas law limits the grounds for a recall to a felony conviction, misconduct in office or “failure to perform duties prescribed by law.” Constituents seeking to recall Suellentrop would have to file petitions signed by more than 3,900 registered voters in his district.
Suellentrop stepped away from most of his duties as majority leader following his March 16 arrest in Topeka after he was stopped on Interstate 70 for driving the wrong way. He was the Senate’s second-highest leadership job, and the majority leader decides which proposals are debated each day.
Asked about his relationship with Suellentrop, Masterson said, “Yes, we’re still friends.”
“I’ve made mistakes myself, maybe not to that level,” he said. “Think about it: Take your most shameful decision and put it on the news every night.”
Suellentrop was not available to reporters Friday and did not attend the meeting of fellow senators. He did not answer his cellphone, and it didn’t allow for a voicemail message seeking comment.
Suellentrop faces five counts, including a felony fleeing to avoid arrest and a misdemeanor driving under the influence charge. An affidavit from the Highway Patrol officer who arrested him was released Thursday, and it said Suellentrop’s blood-alcohol level after his arrest was .17, more than twice the legal limit of .08.
The call for a vote to remove Suellentrop came first from Republican Sen. Rick Kloos, of Topeka, who said he “had numerous conversations” with colleagues and the release of the affidavit was a deciding factor. He was joined by two other Topeka-area senators, Republicans Kristen O’Shea and Brenda Dietrich.
“We came to the decision today that we put this off long enough, as difficult as it is. We have more information now,” Dietrich said.
GOP senators kept the doors to their normal meeting room closed. Reporters who waited outside could see through glass in the doors legislative staffers distributing and then collecting slips of paper serving as ballots.
Asked earlier in the day about having the discussions in public, Masterson said: “We’ve had plenty of discussion in public.”
Assistant Majority Leader Larry Alley, who represents a district south of Wichita, will serve as acting majority leader, as he has since mid-March. Republicans will pick a new majority leader on the last day of this year’s legislative session, Masterson said.
Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Austin Shepley said in his affidavit that Suellentrop refused to take a breathalyzer test and was taken to a Topeka hospital for a blood test after a judge issued a warrant. At one point, he called Shepley “donut boy,” according to the affidavit, and said the events were “all for going the wrong way.”
“While the phlebotomist was administering the blood kit,” Shepley said, Suellentrop became “slightly aggressive in his tone, (and) he made reference to physically going up against me.”
“He looked me up and down, stating he played state sports competitively in high school,” Shepley said. “He stated he could ‘take me.'”