By Tim Carpenter – Kansas Reflector
TOPEKA — A pair of former Kansas Highway Patrol majors filed a federal lawsuit Friday challenging their dismissal as unconstitutional retaliation for helping female employees of the statewide law enforcement agency bring to light allegations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination against the KHP’s top commanders.
An attorney representing Scott Harrington and Josh Kellerman claimed they were victims of unlawful termination for exercising First Amendment rights to discuss KHP leadership issues with people outside the agency, including members of the Kansas Legislature. The lawsuit describing a toxic work environment targeted KHP Col. Herman Jones and second in command Lt. Col. Jason De Vore.
On Saturday, the office of Gov. Laura kelly said the Kansas Highway Patrol followed state law and regulations in dismissal of the two officers.
“The allegations raised in the lawsuit are not new and have been previously investigated and found to be unsubstantiated,” the Kelly spokesperson said. “Colonel Jones and Lieutenant Colonel DeVore have the Kelly administration’s full support.”
In April 2019, Kelly hired Jones to replace the previous KHP colonel, Mark Bruce, who was fired for mishandling sexual misconduct and domestic violence scandal involving subordinates. Bruce was an appointee of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and among the few prominent administrators retained by Kelly. The Democratic governor replaced Bruce with Jones, who had been Shawnee County sheriff. When Harrington and Kellerman were ousted, Kelly also defended the colonel as the right person for the job.
A Kansas Department of Administration inquiry and a law firm’s independent investigation didn’t affirm allegations of misconduct against Jones. The suit filed by the two former KHP majors said Kraig Knowlton, director of personnel services at the state Department of Administration, reported it was difficult to wholly substantiate allegations leveled at Jones due to the “extremely strong likelihood of bias” by female complainants. Despite that outcome, Jones said he would change the way he physically interacted with KHP colleagues.
“Since my appointment last year,” Jones said in July, “I have prioritized building a culture and a structure within our agency that will help our troopers best serve the people of Kansas.”
Kellerman and Harrington, in their lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, said female employees at KHP approached them from April 2019 to July 2020 with charges of sexual harassment by Jones and gender discrimination claims tied to Jones and De Vore. The plaintiffs claim in their petition for damages they were terminated for assisting these women to generate official reports of alleged misconduct.
Harrington resigned under pressure, while Kellerman accepted a demotion before fired. Harrington had been a state trooper for 20 years, court documents said, while Kellerman served with the agency for 17 years.
The lawsuit portrayed De Vore as someone who didn’t tolerate staff who messed with the chain of command, and asserted De Vore told Harrington and Kellerman during a meeting in 2019 that “if I catch wind of you being subversive, you will be gone and will not have a seat at this table.”
In addition, the lawsuit says De Vore was known by Harrington and Kellerman to have openly shared the view that “women do not belong in law enforcement.”
The filing said Jones and De Vore “created and allowed a hostile work environment of sexual harassment and gender discrimination within KHP.” It affirmed Harrington and Kellerman acted in opposition by counseling women to come forward, by personally discussing the situation with KHP human resource staff and by reaching out to members of the Legislature to determine what else might be done.
For example, a KHP staff member identified as Employee B in the lawsuit claimed she was “inappropriately physically touched” by Jones in De Vore’s presence. Employee B, according to the suit, said she told Jones the touching was inappropriate. Jones allegedly responded by touching her again and declaring, “There, I take it back.”
KHP Employee A and Employee C reported to Harrington they were victims of gender discrimination or sexual harassment by KHP leadership. Harrington asserted Employee F decided to quit the agency because “she could no longer work in an environment where women were treated so poorly.”
During a meeting in which Harrington alleged he was told by De Vore that he would be removed from his position as a KHP major if he “did not play on their team,” the suit said Jones came into the room and made a comment of a sexual nature. Harrington claimed in the complaint that Jones said during an October 2019 staff meeting the KHP’s response to a fatality crash was “like white on rice.” Allegedly, some at the meeting complained Jones’ comment was race-based. Jones is black. Not all people interpret the phrase as racist, but as a way of expressing someone was on top of a task.
Also in October 2019, Harrington claimed, Jones came into a KHP restroom and announced liquid soap resembled semen. It was in this time frame, Harrington said, that Employee G told him that Jones sent her a sexually graphic Instant Message. Employee E alleged Jones asked her why she always “shakes it” for him, the lawsuit said. That same staff member said, according to court documents, Jones came up behind her, put his hands on her back and said, “Does this make you feel uncomfortable?” Employee H told Harrington that Jones made an inappropriate sexual comment, accompanied with body gestures, to female employees of KHP in Salina, the lawsuit alleged.
In 2019, Harrington was informed he was no longer supervisor of the agency’s Troop J. He subsequently was told approval for him to attend the FBI National Academy had been rescinded. In both instances, the lawsuit said, the administrative actions amounted to retaliation. In a similar way, Kellerman was told last year he would no longer supervise information technolgy at KHP.
The Kansas State Troopers Association took the unusual step of defending the former majors when they were ousted in July. The association said the decision to terminate “two highly respected and decorated majors will have a chilling effect on employees’ willingness to come forward with complaints within the agency.”
More recently, auditors of the Legislature concluded no state policy or law was violated in the process of removing Harrington and Kellerman. The audit didn’t evaluate legitimacy of allegations leveled at Jones and others. No KHP major had been fired in at least 25 years before ouster of the two veteran officers, auditors said.