The Attorney General's office is investigating allegations former Shawnee County District Attorney Robert Hecht unlawfully added hundreds of thousands of dollars to his salary between 2001 and 2008.
In Kansas, state law allows a district attorney to receive additional compensation from the county for legal work done when a case is appealed.
That is where there's confusion.
Hecht received payment for his appeals work but commissioners say they never approved those payments, which boosted his pay to over $245,000 last year.
Shawnee County Commission Chair, Vic Miller, said their office happened onto the information when someone inquired with the county counselor about how much a district attorney is paid. Richard Eckert, county counselor, then noticed K.S.A. 22-3612, which states: In representing the interests of the state in appeals from criminal actions in the district courts of this state to the Supreme Court or court of appeals or in other post-conviction actions arising from criminal prosecutions, the attorney general shall invoke the assistance of the county or district attorney of the county in which the action originally commenced. The reasonable costs of such assistance shall be allowed and paid by the board of county commissioners from the county general fund for any services rendered by such county's county or district attorney pursuant to this section.
After some digging, Eckert and Miller found Hecht had been compensated for appellate work by adding it to a pay sheet he submitted for his department every other week, and including the amount in a miscellaneous section for his paycheck.
The money came out of the district attorney's budget, totalling $482,895 over Hecht's eight years in office.
"In order to receive payment under the statute it appears to me it needs county commission approval, it needs to be reasonable, and it needs to come from the general fund," said Miller.
Hecht's pay stubs go to the county clerk, who then approves and sends it to the audit finance department, which also gives approval.
"If the clerk doesn't call it to our attention that this is going on, there's no practical ability to know," said Miller, who discussed the matter with County Clerk, Cynthia Becker, when this was discovered in November 2008. "I've expressed my disappointment that this didn't rise to a level that she felt responsible for reporting it to us. Hopefully, that will take care of some things if there are similar circumstances. Hopefully she now feels more of a responsibility to report it to us."
Hecht says the way he went about getting payment for the appellate work was the process he was instructed to use.
"In eight years no one in the County Clerk's Office, no one in the Audit Finance Department ever contacted me and suggested that the procedure might not be the correct one and no one ever contacted me about the amount," said Hecht.
The amount Hecht was compensated is also in question because it rose significantly each year - from $14,125 in 2001 to $127,275 in 2008.
He said it's based on a number of factors. "Essentially, the more involved and the more responsibility - both legal and ethical - that I took on and the more supervision I had to do, is when the increases began," Hecht said.
The former attorney general said when presenting the budget to commissioners each year they're able to also see the amount they approved for his salary the previous year, and then also the actual amount he received, including the appellate compensation. Hecht said he doesn't understand why no one would have said something about it. Miller said elected officials have a little more freedom than county departments, which are supervised by the commission.
"Elected officials get their budget approved like everyone else, but once it's approved the county commission's role ends," Miller said. "It's a bit of a problem because ultimately we're responsible as commissioners for the expenditures of monies and yet we have limited ability to monitor and to control elected officials' budgets once it's approved."
Miller also said there was never an item included in the D.A.'s budget that said it would be allocated for appellate work.
A motion was also made and passed by commissioners Thursday for the County Counselor's office to draft a lawsuit to recover some of the money even before getting the A.G.'s opinion, before the statute of limitations runs out.
"To raise the question now as I leave office is startling and concerning to me because we did absolutely nothing wrong," Hecht said.
Read the attached letter from commissioners to Six.
Statement from AG Six's Office
"The Attorney General's Office has been in contact with the Shawnee County Counselor regarding inconsistencies within the budget of the Shawnee County District Attorney's Office between 2001 and 2008. We will be looking into it.
Attorney General Six is committed to an open government and believes Shawnee County taxpayers deserve to know how their tax dollars are being spent. That being said, it is our policy not to comment on ongoing investigations."
Statement from Shawnee Co. District Atty. Chad Taylor's Office
"In response to media inquiries, Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor affirmed that his Office is committed to open and transparent government operations. It is therefore the policy of the Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office to comply fully with any and all ongoing investigations, now and in the future.
It is also the Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office policy to not comment upon ongoing investigations by other law enforcement agencies."