Stunning admission at Capps’ fraud trial exposes ethics breach at Wichita City Hall | Opinion

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The federal fraud trial of thankfully-former state Rep. Michael Capps has had more than its share of bombshell revelations of corruption.

Although Capps was found guilty Wednesday of 12 felonies, there remains a piece of this story that needs some serious attention from Wichita City Hall, pronto.

Testifying under oath as a witness, Capps’ business partner and thankfully-former City Council member James Clendenin opened a window into his own corruption during his long tenure on the council.

Clendenin admitted that his role in Capps’ business — and his 20% ownership of the firm — stemmed directly from his elected office as a City Council member and the special access that it gave him to the movers and shakers of Wichita’s business community.

That’s beyond unacceptable. But it’s not all that surprising, given the ongoing ineptitude, and/or resistance, surrounding ethics reform in our municipal government.

Clendenin’s revelation was just a brief moment in court. But it’s about the most self-damning admission of self-dealing by a politician that I’ve ever seen.

In fact, it was so eye-popping that I waited to write about it until I could get the official court transcript to see exactly what was said. It came during questioning of Clendenin, when U.S. District Court Judge Eric Melgren read questions from jurors, which he allowed in the trial:

THE COURT (Melgren): The next question asks: “What do you” -- or “What did you offer the business to have your 20 percent ownership.”

THE WITNESS (Clendenin): My relationships. Since I was an elected official at the time, I had a lot of connections. I had a lot of relationships with people and going out and talking to businesses, and I’d had myself a sales background, and so, you know, doing the sales portion. Does that answer the question? Hopefully that answers the questions.

Yes, James. It answers the question. And it raises about a thousand others — the most salient of which are “How many times did you exploit your elected office for personal gain?” and “Is it just you, or is it the other council members as well?”

Granted, those questions probably weren’t legally askable in a court trial to determine whether Capps was guilty of defrauding the federal government. The jury found that he declared dozens of phantom employees to illegally rake in $470,000 of federal relief payments that were meant to keep workers paid and small businesses from collapsing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Capps probably wouldn’t even be on trial except for Eagle reporter Chance Swaim digging into his COVID claims.

And that was a spin-off of earlier investigation by Chance and myself into a political smear campaign targeting Mayor Brandon Whipple, and later, a cover-up plot to deflect the blame to then-Sedgwick County Republican Chairman Dalton Glasscock.

That episode was run by Capps, Clendenin and again-thankfully-former Sedgwick County commissioner Michael O’Donnell, and it’s what led us to untangle Capps’ array of dubious business ventures, shell companies and a bogus charity where he stashed ill-gotten money.

But while newspapers have a watchdog function, we can’t be the entire ethics enforcement arm of government. That has to come from the organizations.

Most businesses have and enforce ethics rules. Most of us, including Eagle employees, live with much tighter rules than city officials do.

Wichita passed an ethics code in May of 2021, after Clendenin resigned under threat of legal ouster by the District Attorney.

But the debate was marked by a lot of what-ifs as members sought to protect their privileges, and got side-tracked into a rabbit hole about criticism of our poor elected officials on social media.

The new policy created an ethics advisory board, and an ethics officer to chair it and provide advice to council members on ethics matters.

But it took four months to appoint the board and the council wrote rules for the ethics officer that are so restrictive that no one with the slightest interest in or knowledge of politics could possibly meet the qualifications.

That’s now been punted over to Wichita State for recommendations on a rewrite, which frankly should have been done long ago.

So now, a year and a half later, we still don’t have a functional ethics administration, although the council did recently approve letting the board handle complaints with a lawyer involved.

It’s not good enough.

Ethics is easy: Don’t take free stuff, don’t exploit your office and official contacts for personal gain, don’t put your politics ahead of the public trust. If it feels wrong or looks wrong, don’t do it.

If our current crop of council members don’t get that, we need to vote them out and find some that do.

To quote James Clendenin, “Does that answer the question?”