The public’s reaction Friday to Franklin County Sheriff Jeff Curry’s announced resignation resembled James Bond’s martini.
Some residents were shaken by Curry’s plans to step down April 1.
“I was surprised he resigned,” Ottawa native Tab White, 53, said. “With Curry being a Marine, I thought he would have fought it to the last block.”
But most citizens were not stirred from their strong conviction that the sheriff’s office would continue to perform its duties without a hiccup in the wake of Curry’s departure.
“I think the sheriff’s staff and deputies will continue to do their job,” Tony Keim, owner of Keim Bakery in Ottawa and a Franklin County Crime Stoppers, Inc. board member, said. “I don’t think Curry’s resignation has created a foul mood for anybody around the community. Undersheriff Steve Lunger is quite capable of running the department, and I am confident he will do a good job.”
Facing a crowded courtroom gathered for an ouster hearing Thursday aimed at removing the sheriff from office, Curry said he would voluntarily resign, effective 5 p.m. April 1.
Stephen Hunting, Franklin County attorney, filed the ouster proceedings in late February. In doing so, he called on Curry to resign immediately following his Feb. 27 arrest on a felony charge of interference with law enforcement and a misdemeanor charge of official misconduct. The arrest came as the result of a months-long investigation conducted by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
Bob Bezek, attorney for the City of Ottawa, said he thought Hunting had acted properly regarding the ouster proceedings.
“I think it was handled well and professionally by Stephen Hunting,” Bezek said. “I think he analyzed it from every perspective and did what was professionally and ethically required.”
White, a senior engineering technician of avionics with Garmin Industries in Olathe, was critical of Hunting’s handling of the Curry matter.
“I think if Mr. Hunting would have said, ‘I’m confident we have enough to proceed with the ouster, but I will wait until the public is better informed [about the allegations],’ then I think Hunting’s decision would have been well-received,” White said. “Growing up in Ottawa and living here my whole life — except for the time I was in the military — I can say with confidence that I’m not the only person who feels that way.”
Out of respect for the electorate, White said, the more appropriate measure would have been to ask the public official to be put on paid leave of absence until enough information was put before the voters to trigger a recall — if enough people thought it was warranted.
Helen Hood, a voting delegate of the Franklin County Republican Central Committee, which will be tasked with nominating a new sheriff for Gov. Sam Brownback to officially appoint, said she thought Curry should have resigned.
Hood, 68, a longtime Ottawan and lifetime Franklin County resident, said Curry’s resignation was in the county’s best interest, because no one wanted to see a drawn out ouster proceeding.
“If I were in the position Jeff was in, I think it was in his best interest to resign,” Hood said. “Now, instead of this dragging on, maybe we can move forward and get the county back on the right road.”
But Hood said Curry’s voluntary resignation probably would increase the likelihood that the public would never learn the exact details of the charges leveled against the sheriff.
Her husband, former county commissioner David Hood, was one of a few individuals and media outlets that filed open records requests to try and obtain a copy of the KBI search warrant executed at the sheriff’s office. Those requests were turned down by the county. The Herald, which also filed numerous open records requests with other agencies that also ultimately were rejected, filed a motion to intervene in the case, attempting to open the sealed records.
Senior Judge John E. Sanders, who is presiding over the case, said he would grant The Herald’s motion to intervene, and attorneys in the case must respond with their arguments for or against unsealing the documents on or before April 1. After the attorneys file their responses, the judge is expected to decide whether to open the records.
“By resigning, I think he has more of a chance of getting a plea bargain deal,” Hood said. “And, honestly, I’m not sure how much of it we will ever know. I think less of it will come out now.”
And the shroud of mystery regarding the allegations is what White said he finds most troubling — Curry supporter or not.“The fact is, the voters are being kept in the dark about what this public official is accused of doing,” White said. “Accusations against a public official should be made public. I also have a deep concern with the judicial system making decisions on its own for the electorate.”
White said he was referring to the fact details relating to the criminal and civil cases against Curry — most of which have been sealed by the Franklin County District Court — have yet to be disclosed to the voters who put Curry in office.
The move to oust Curry and the court’s refusal thus far to unseal records related to the charges against a public official is irksome, White said.
“The fact that this has moved forward and has been done under a veil of secrecy is a slap in the face to every voter in Franklin County,” White said.
Regardless of the public’s limited knowledge of the allegations, the charges brought against the sheriff could tarnish the department’s image, some residents said.
Hood said whomever the Republican Central Committee nominates should be a person of strong character.
“Transparency and honesty will be vital,” she said. “I think that was one of Jeff’s faults. He was not transparent with the commission. Instead of talking with the commission about car purchases, for example, and asking for their input, he would just tell them what he was going to do. I realize it’s his budget, but other sheriffs in the past have been more transparent.
“Why, on the morning he was arrested, he told commissioners he was going to purchase three Dodge Chargers [for the department],” Hood said.
Bezek said credibility is crucial in law enforcement.
“[In] law enforcement, credibility of the office is the first and most important element, and everything else assumes that,” Bezek said. “Credibility is the absolute requirement, and every aspect of law enforcement knows you treat everyone fairly.”
Whatever the facts of the case are, Curry isn’t talking about it either. He did not make a statement at Thursday’s hearing.
The silver lining might be that many residents and various officials expressed the utmost confidence in the sheriff’s office to carry on its duties in the wake of Curry’s departure. The sheriff’s office has a contract with the City of Pomona to provide 30 hours of patrol duty each week in the community.
“I haven’t seen any drop off in patrols, and I’m confident that the sheriff’s office will continue to fulfill its contract obligations with the City of Pomona,” Marie Seneca, Pomona mayor, said Friday. “I know [Undersheriff] Steve Lunger, and I have every confidence in his ability to run the sheriff’s office.”
Franklin County Crime Stoppers board member Keim said he was confident the sheriff’s office would continue to support the local Crime Stoppers organization, and he said he anticipated no change in the organization’s relationship with the sheriff’s office after Curry’s departure.
In the meantime, the Republican Central Committee will be notified by the governor’s office once it receives Curry’s resignation letter. Hood said once the committee has received that notification, it would schedule a convention to select a nominee. That meeting will be open to the public, Hood said, but the voting process that evening will be conducted by private ballot.
Hood said she does not feel sorry for Curry, but does have empathy for him because his law enforcement career is in ruins. Curry has a stubborn, sometimes “arrogant” streak, she said, that might have been his undoing.
“I’ve known Jeff since he was a kid, and I think when he came back from the Marines he thought he was invincible,” Hood said. “I think he thought he was on top of the ladder and he couldn’t be knocked off.”