County Attorney reprimands assistant for emails

Margaret Allen

Complications in the race for Ellis County Attorney took more twists Friday with the reprimand of a long-time Assistant Ellis County Attorney for unprofessional behavior.

At the same time, a candidate for Ellis County Attorney in the August Republican primary, who was a candidate and then wasn’t a candidate, is now a candidate again, thanks to a clerical error.

Assistant County Attorney Charlene Brubaker on Thursday became an official factor in the Gove County election when it became public that earlier this month she took sides in their primary for County Attorney.

Brubaker, a hired employee, sent out emails advocating for a candidate from her Ellis County email account.

Brubaker’s emails urged the recipients to help elect her colleague Aaron Cunningham, and to vote against a former colleague, Chris Lyon.

Lyon, Trego County Attorney and Hays Municipal Prosecutor, was an assistant Ellis County Attorney from 2014 to 2018. During that time he was an advisor to the Ellis County Drug Enforcement Unit and is certified by the U.S. Department of Justice for Adult Drug Court Planning. He’s been a special prosecutor in Rush, Sheridan and Ness counties. Lyon is also past president of the Ellis County Bar Association and staff attorney for the Kansas Sentencing Commission.

Cunningham has practiced almost a year in the Ellis County Attorney’s office.

A decorated U.S. Army infantry and cavalry veteran with two tours of duty in Iraq, Lyon earlier this month in a public letter to county residents reported he’d become aware of Brubaker’s emails, without naming her specifically.

“An employee there was allegedly disparaging me in email, urging others to oppose me in an election in another county. The email even mentions my wife and children,” Lyon wrote. “Also, it is my understanding the emails were sent during regular office hours and on the Ellis County Attorney’s equipment which is paid for by taxpayer funds. The email included the official title of the sender and their contact information. If true, that is a violation of law (KSA 25-4169a) and undeniably unethical.”

In response, Ellis County Attorney Tom Drees in a letter to Lyon on Thursday apologized for what he called Brubaker’s inappropriate behavior.

“Charlene has referred herself to the Kansas Lawyer Disciplinary Administrator to determine whether or not she has violated any rule of professional conduct,” said Drees in his letter to Lyon.

Drees, who made the letter public Thursday, said he has officially reprimanded Brubaker for sending the emails. She has been with the County Attorney’s Office for 16 years, and prior to that was in private practice.

“Should you choose to make a police report regarding this incident, it will be forwarded to the Kansas Attorney General’s Office to determine whether or not the statute you referred to, or any statute, was violated,” Drees wrote.

Drees told The Hays Daily News Friday he had no knowledge Brubaker was sending out emails. Also Friday, at the News’ request, Drees with Brubaker’s consent released the Brubaker emails, as well as a statement from her, and her letter to the Kansas disciplinary office.

In the documents, Brubaker tells the Kansas disciplinary office that she sent three emails: one to a friend in Quinter, one to a distant relative in rural Grainfield, and one to an officer in the Hays Police Department.

In her emails, Brubaker describes the 26-year-old Cunningham as “a very capable lawyer and a really good prosecutor” with deep community involvement. She characterizes Lyon as having many work and family commitments.

In her email to one of the recipients, Brubaker wrote: “Please feel free to share this email or information with others in Gove County. The primary is in 2 months and Aaron needs to get out and meet people there.” She went on to provide contact information for Cunningham, “If you know of any groups or individuals who would like to meet with Aaron …”

“I know Aaron will appreciate any help you give and I can assure you that whatever you do will be well worth your effort,” Brubaker wrote.

Brubaker went on to say that if elected, Cunningham would continue to be employed in Ellis County. “The rest of us lawyers in this office are committed to taking up the slack and to offer our assistance in any [sic] we can, so that Aaron can serve Gove County while continuing to work here at the Ellis County Attorney’s office. He is just that good.”

Drees said it’s common practice for one elected attorney to serve multiple counties in the rural areas of the state.

Drees said he takes no position on candidates for County Attorney in the various counties. In a contested race, Drees is running on the Republican ticket in the Aug. 4 primary for district judge in the 23rd Judicial District. That district includes Ellis, Rooks, Trego and Gove counties.

In running for district judge, Drees didn’t file for re-election to the County Attorney’s Office, a job he’s held for 23 years since 1996.

“I’m not allowed to endorse anybody,” Drees said. “I’m running for judge, so I can’t get involved.”

In another twist, Lyon is also now a candidate for Ellis County Attorney as the result of a clerical mix up.

Lyon in July 2019 announced his candidacy for Ellis County Attorney. Then in January he withdrew to provide support to a family member in Kansas City with health issues.

“I learned on Friday that I will be on the ballot for the Republican primary for Ellis County Attorney. My withdrawal was not effective because a statute was not precisely followed in the form used. I had sent an email to the County Clerk requesting that I be withdrawn from the race.”

It’s not that simple, Lyon wrote, citing a similar mix-up with a candidate for U.S. Senate a few years ago that the Kansas Supreme Court decided.

"This case is simpler,“ he said. ”It took Bill Jeter, the Ellis County Counselor to decide this matter. I spoke with him and he informed me that he would instruct the County Clerk to add my name back on the ballot, because she had not obtained a notarized signature.“

The primary is Aug. 4 and the general election is Nov. 3.