Gene Suellentrop to relinquish some leadership duties a day after booking for DUI, fleeing police
Senate Majority Leader Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, announced Wednesday that he will relinquish some of his leadership duties a day after his booking, and eventual release, in connection with driving under the influence and fleeing law enforcement after he was found driving the wrong way on Interstate 70 in downtown Topeka.
The move was made "out of respect for Senate leadership, my Republican colleagues, and the entire Kansas Senate," Suellentrop said in a statement. He will step aside from the day-to-day functions of his job until "matters that I am currently dealing with are resolved."
"I regret that this incident has caused a distraction for my colleagues and the Senate staff and, most importantly, from the important issues we are debating on behalf of the people of Kansas," the release said. "It is essential that Senate leadership, our caucus, and the entire Senate be able to successfully complete the serious work that remains over the next few weeks."
The 69-year-old senator addressed his Republican colleagues in a meeting earlier in the afternoon, which was twice closed to the media in a rare move as members discussed a "personnel matter."
Once the caucus was reopened to the public, Suellentrop didn't sit in the spot traditionally reserved for the floor leader.
Assistant Majority Leader Larry Alley, R-Winfield, instead presided over the meeting and will assume many of the day-to-day duties the floor leader typically handles. Some responsibilities mandated by statute will remain with Suellentrop, a Senate GOP spokesperson said.
Over the course of the day, lawmakers acknowledged the seriousness of the allegations against Suellentrop, with the incident gaining statewide and even national attention. Many said the matter would hang over their heads going forward unless action was taken.
"There is no doubt it has an impact," Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, told reporters. "As a caucus we are held to some degree of accountability for who we elect to our leadership."
Senator Republicans handily elected Suellentrop over a more moderate foe, Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, in their leadership vote in December. He is in his first session serving as majority leader.
"I think it is fair to say there could be a reassessment," Senate Vice President Rick Wilborn, R-McPherson, said of Suellentrop's role going forward. "But he is very popular (within the caucus)."
Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, predicted a discussion about Suellentrop's future in the body but noted "there is still so much we don't know."
"We don't have any of the facts," he said before walking onto the Senate floor.
In a statement released after Suellentrop's announcement, Masterson praised the move, calling it a "prudent decision."
"It demonstrates respect for his colleagues and the Senate as an institution, as it will allow us to proceed forward without distraction nor delay as he handles the matters impacting him at the present time,” Masterson said in the release.
Other lawmakers were somber but said they wouldn't take any pleasure in seeing Suellentrop operate in a reduced role.
"I would not vote him out. But if that vote came, I would understand," said Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, adding that Suellentrop had a "really bad night" and that it could "overshadow" the Legislature's work.
Multiple callers reported a white SUV going eastbound in the westbound lane of I-70 at roughly 12:45 a.m Tuesday, according to tapes of the 911 calls released by the Shawnee County Emergency Communications Center. At least one driver told operators that the vehicle, allegedly belonging to Suellentrop, nearly struck him and "scared the crap out of me."
"They about hit me," the man said. "I'm fine. I'm OK — they're not near me. But they're going the wrong way."
Officers from the Kansas Highway Patrol's Capitol Police unit attempted to stop the vehicle. A KHP spokesperson said Tuesday that a "short pursuit" lasted for several minutes and officers unsuccessfully attempted to use a tactical vehicle intervention, a maneuver used to turn around a vehicle in a chase situation.
Suellentrop was eventually stopped about 10 minutes after the incident was reported, according to KHP. He was arrested in connection with misdemeanor DUI, as well as fleeing or attempting to elude law enforcement, speeding, improper driving on a laned roadway and improper crossover on a divided highway.
But a Shawnee County District Court judge found there was no probable cause to support those counts during an initial hearing hours later, saying "pertinent information" wasn't included on the arrest report.
Suellentrop was released from custody after the hearing. A KHP spokesperson said case information had been forwarded to the Shawnee County district attorney, who didn't respond to a request for comment on the matter Wednesday morning.
The KHP's general counsel denied a request from The Topeka Capital-Journal to obtain a copy of the arrest report, as well as any video footage of the arrest. The first page of the report will be made public over the course of the next 10 days.