Texts appear to show collusion between Johnson County official, Gault Center staff to prevent transparency on race training

(The Sentinel) — A series of text messages buried at the bottom of a 618 page document dump appear to show direct collusion between a Johnson County official and the Gault Center, a Washington DC-based think tank, to prevent the public from seeing what was in a training session on race and equity co-sponsored by the county.

The event was called the “Sunflower Summit” and was to be a joint venture between the Johnson County Department of Corrections and the Gault Center, a think-tank specializing in “youth justice.”

However, over the weekend, the event was abruptly canceled and switched to an online-only format, after the Gault Center and Johnson County Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara were unable to come to an agreement for her to bring a videographer to tape the event, and also apparently in response to Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Haden’s planned attendance as well as his decision to station two deputies outside the event for security.

Both the Gault Center and Johnson County staff — as well as Commission Chair Mike Kelly blasted O’Hara and claimed “threats and misinformation” were behind the cancellation — as other outlets have reported.  But when pressed by the Sentinel, no threats were identified.

Public excuses don’t hold water

The reason for the cancellation appears to be that Johnson County and the Gault Center didn’t want a record of what was said about race and equality.

O’Hara filed a Kansas Open Records Act request with county staff for all communications between county employees and the Gault Center, and turned those documents over to the Sentinel.

At the end of the 618-page PDF file were screen captures of text messages between a county employee and Kristina Kersey of the Gault Center.

The messages begin on February 7, 2023 and while Kersey is named at the top of the captures, the county employee who sent texts is not named. However, it would appear to be Johnson County Disproportionate Minority Contact Coordinator Robert E. Johnson.

Up to February 26, the texts merely deal with logistics concerning a venue for the summit, and then there is no activity until  one labeled Wednesday 7:23 p.m. asking Kersey, “can you take a call?”  (Dates are not applied to texts that occur within the previous seven days, so this text was likely sent March 29 since the event was cancelled two days later.)

Then on Friday (March 31) the texts begin again, and take a much different tack.

The county employee writes, “I think we can outsmart her.  I’m not one for backing down when bullied.  Right now, I don’t think Johnson County can officially be described as a co-sponsor.  We haven’t spent money on the event yet other than the name tags I purchased.  But we still need to provide lunch.”

Fifteen minutes later, he writes, “She can’t video anything if Johnson County doesn’t pay for the food.  I’m willing to use my own money for it.  And we stand by not recording the event.”

Kersey then says, “My concern is that the county is already on branded flyers so this isn’t going to convince her to back down in time.”

The reply included this comment: “Her focus is Johnson County being a co-sponsor.  If we don’t take that card out of her hand, nothing will change.”

It appears from this exchange that the county and the Gault center were both aware that O’Hara could not be prevented from taping the event with Johnson County being a co-sponsor.

There is direct reference to “Mary Ann” — presumably Gault Executive Director Mary Ann Scali — having a “Plan B,” which would appear to be the last minute decision to cancel the in person event and do an invite-only Zoom in order to prevent the public from seeing what would have gone on in the in person sessions.

Kersey also explicitly states that “Mary Ann” and “Amy” — mostly likely Gault Justice Systems Manager Amy Borror — attempted to put pressure on the Kansas Department of Corrections to stop any video taping, again suggesting everyone involved was quite aware they had no right to prevent it.

Based on the texts, the county and the Gault Center were willing to go to enormous lengths — and outright collude on messaging — to keep the contents of training for public employees from the public.

The Sentinel reached out to the entire Johnson County Commission, County Manager Penny Postoak Ferguson and Chief Counsel Peg Trent for comment on the text messages and as of publication they have not responded.

Canceled at the last minute

An email dated Friday, March 31, 2023 canceling the Monday, April 3 event, stated — in part — “In response to recent statements we interpret as potential threats to the security and wellbeing of our guests and presenters, we have regretfully decided to cancel the Sunflower Summit scheduled for April 3. We are working to offer some of what was planned for the Sunflower Summit to you virtually on Monday.”

“It really wasn’t canceled,” O’Hara said in a phone interview earlier this week. “No, it was a run around the end.”

The event would have been an all-day affair, featuring Professor Kristin Henning, author of “The Rage of Innocence,” a book which purports to examine “the criminalization of Black adolescent play and sexuality, the demonization of Black fashion, hair, and music, and the discriminatory impact of police in schools,” and lay bare “the long-term consequences of racism and trauma that Black children experience at the hands of police and their vigilante surrogates and explains how discriminatory and aggressive policing has socialized a generation of Black teenagers to fear and resent the police.”

Misinformation and “threats” cited 

Both the Gault Center and Johnson County Commission Chairman Mike Kelly, made repeated references to “rhetoric and misinformation” in emails, and Kelly specifically blamed O’Hara, without actually using her name.

“I am disappointed that the intentional misrepresentations made by some Johnson County officials have led to an atmosphere where presenters feel unsafe and unwelcome in Johnson County,” Kelly said in the email.

Gault Center staff insisted in a string of emails that they had “agreements” with presenters not to allow recording or streaming of the event, but then proceeded to do a portion of the “training,” in an online Zoom meeting Monday.

The Sentinel reached out to the Gault Center via email, with several questions related to the event and asked if they were responding to any specific threats of violence, if they objected to armed security in general, or just the sheriff providing it, particularly as an email from the Lenexa Police Department to Hayden stated they were providing security. The Sentinel also asked what their objection to streaming or recording was and specifically what “misinformation” they felt was being spread.

The answers were … somewhat vague.

Gault Center Justice Systems Manager Amy Borror said there were no specific threats of violence, that they were not aware of any security arrangements with Lenexa PD, and repeated that the event would contain “proprietary work product.”

She demurred on the question of “misinformation,” stating: “Folks in Johnson County might be better suited to answer your question about the specifics of misinformation about the event, as it was passed to us second or third hand. Our understanding is that the content of the planned training was characterized as being anti-law enforcement and that during public comments at a county commission meeting, it was called Marxist.”

Whether or not the “training” was anti-law enforcement or Marxist, however, would be impossible to determine without the sort of transparency O’Hara was asking for.

Moreover, Borror’s response indicates that the “potential threats” the Gault Center “interpreted” to exist were non-existent.

Borror initially did not answer the question about whether they objected to armed security in general, or just having it provided by the sheriff, but when pressed claimed Hayden’s presence was the threat.

“The first time the possibility of the sheriff’s attendance was mentioned to us, it was by Commissioner O’Hara in response to an email informing her that she could not record or broadcast the event,” Borror said. “Our interpretation of that email was that the sheriff would attend not to provide security for the event but to enforce Commissioner O’Hara’s demand that she be allowed to record and broadcast the portions of the event that were proprietary.”

However, Hayden said that simply wasn’t the case. He simply wished to attend and hear the training to see if there was anything he could take back to his department.

“I just want(ed) to hear what they got to say,” Hayden said in a phone interview Monday. “See what they’re doing because we fight this kind of stuff every day. We spend a lot of time on making sure that everything we do in law enforcement is fair and equitable to everybody … I’ve got 500 deputies, 600 and some employees, and our diversity is second to none. I’m extremely proud of it.”

The Sentinel asked county commissioners and the county manager to respond to several questions about our findings.  A response was provided on their behalf by Andy Hyland, Assistant Director of Public Affairs and Communications, but he did not directly address any of our questions.

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