TOPEKA — Republican congressional candidate Antonio Soave claims to have been pressured to quit the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback after one of Soave’s business associates filed a lawsuit accusing the Cabinet secretary of financial misconduct, court documents said Friday.
Soave resigned as secretary of the Kansas Department of Commerce less than two weeks after Lawrence business partner Paola Ghezzo filed suit in June claiming Soave used Ghezzo’s $500,000 investment in their Overland Park consulting firm as “his own personal piggy bank” to maintain a “lavish lifestyle.” In more than two years of operation, their company had $20,000 in gross revenue.
Soave, who is seeking the GOP nomination for Congress in the Second District that includes Topeka, said in Johnson County District Court documents that Ghezzo falsely charged that he “misapplied and wasted” company assets. He said Ghezzo made inaccurate statements to people in state government to build pressure on him to resign as Cabinet secretary.
“Amidst this extreme pressure, Soave chose to resign as Kansas’ commerce secretary or be removed from office by the governor,” Soave’s attorneys said in a document responding to Ghezzo’s complaint.
Soave, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, was hired by Brownback to lead the commerce department in November 2015. The investment alliance between Ghezzo and Soave was initiated in February 2015.
Ghezzo’s suit says Soave received an $8,000 monthly salary at one point from Capistrano Italia-USA, but also relied on the company’s credit card for business and personal expenses. Soave’s response to the lawsuit said he reimbursed the company for “all expenses which could have been perceived as personal expenses.” In 2015 and 2016, he said reimbursements totaled $42,900.
Court records revealed Soave secured for Ghezzo a part-time job as “international consultant” at the commerce department with a salary of $6,000 per month. Ghezzo took the position after rejecting Soave’s request to take over management of Capistrano Italia once he joined the Brownback administration.
Soave’s response to the lawsuit includes this passage: “Whereas Ghezzo lacked the expertise, experience, time, interest, discipline and entrepreneurial drive necessary to assume primary responsibility and directional control of Capistrano Italia’s operations, Soave believed Ghezzo could perform assigned consulting duties as part of a much larger team of Kansas commerce department workers.”
Capistrano Italia was designed to provide global advisory services for Italian and other foreign investors interested in merger and acquisition opportunities in North America, Latin America and the Middle East. In return for a $500,000 investment, Ghezzo received 51 percent of the company. Soave held 49 percent.
Soave said in a court document both Soave and Ghezzo were convinced contacts made by Soave as commerce secretary “could prove lucrative to Capistrano Italia over time.” Along those lines, Ghezzo was part of the commerce department’s contingent at an aviation show in England and during a trip to Italy in 2016.
The document submitted to district court by Soave alleged Ghezzo instructed him to invest Capistrano Italia funds in a Lawrence restaurant that would appear to be led by Ghezzo’s nieces and nephews, but actually would be managed by an Italian citizen. Soave said he advised Ghezzo against the investment, in part, because it could violate provisions of Ghezzo’s E-2 visa.
Soave said Brownback’s chief of staff Jon Hummell told Soave to make commerce department consultants full-time employees or end their contracts. Ghezzo’s immigration status made it “difficult if not impossible” to make her a full-time employee, Soave said in the court filing. In February, Hummell purportedly told Soave to fire Ghezzo by June 1.
In late June, Brownback praised the departing Soave as someone with “great vision” who brought enthusiasm for entrepreneurship to state government. Soave said at that time he wanted to return to the private sector. Neither Soave nor Brownback mentioned the litigation, and Soave didn’t speak at that time to his interest in campaigning to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins in Congress.