JoCo Sheriff Hayden attacks other GOP officials as election investigation produces no charges

·5 min read

Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden, without offering specific allegations or detailing evidence, has begun casting Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab as an election lawbreaker and Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe as unwilling or unable to take up Hayden’s cause.

The Republican sheriff of the state’s most populous county has been conducting a long-running investigation into the county’s elections, making him an ally to election deniers who have advanced baseless allegations of fraud and misconduct dating back to former President Donald Trump’s promotion of conspiracy theories following his loss in the 2020 election. The investigation has led to no criminal charges.

But Hayden on Monday said he has found violations of state law that don’t include any criminal penalties – allowing the sheriff to claim vindication in his search for illegal conduct while explaining the lack of prosecutions.

Hayden told the Kansas Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee during a hearing on election legislation that he had found 15 violations of law, though in written testimony he placed the number at approximately 11. He didn’t describe the violations and a spokeswoman didn’t provide any additional information on Tuesday.

“I don’t understand why the Secretary of State’s Office can get away with violating statutes and nobody holds them accountable. That’s wrong. If I have to conform to state statutes, so should they,” Hayden said.

Hayden said in written testimony that his office had been placed in the position of identifying “willful violations” of law by Schwab and Johnson County Election Commissioner Fred Sherman, who was appointed by Schwab. Sherman didn’t respond to a request for comment.

A spokeswoman for Schwab, a Republican, denounced Hayden’s comments on Tuesday and emphasized his investigation hasn’t produced evidence of impropriety in Kansas elections.

“Sheriff Hayden’s statements consistently lack merit. This multi-year investigation-- at taxpayer expense-- has produced no evidence of foul play in Kansas’ elections,” spokeswoman Whitney Tempel said in a statement.

In his written testimony, Hayden said he had submitted information to Howe’s office but that the district attorney, who is also a Republican, couldn’t prosecute because of the lack of criminal penalties for violations. However, when Hayden spoke to the committee he implied Howe was afraid to act because of the attention it would draw.

“We’ve identified over 15 different statutory violations. The problem is not a district attorney is going to touch this because they’ve seen how I’ve been railbombed with the news and The Star and everybody else called all these names,” Hayden said.

“Nobody wants to touch this, especially during an election year. So nobody wants to take the heat. I’ll take the heat, I don’t care.”

Howe declined to comment on Tuesday.

Democratic lawmakers cast doubt on the notion Hayden’s claims had any merit.

“I look forward to him publishing any details about those violations,” said state Rep. Brandon Woodard, a Lenexa Democrat. “As we’ve seen in the state of Kansas, any election fraud has usually been committed by Republican voters just accidentally voting more than once.”

Hayden has long been allied with Mike Brown, a former Johnson County commissioner who was elected chairman of the Kansas Republican Party last month after Hayden nominated him. Brown, who has promoted election conspiracy theories, ran an unsuccessful primary campaign against Schwab last year.

Hayden’s latest attacks come as he and Brown are attempting to stop an elections bill that passed the Kansas House unanimously last month. The legislation, HB 2086, contains a multitude of changes to the state’s election laws. It is the bipartisan product of a multi-year effort by Schwab and others to craft a comprehensive package to streamline and clarify what is widely acknowledged to be a complex and byzantine set of laws.

For instance, it would set deadlines for requesting recounts to ensure they don’t fall before the completion of an initial canvass. It would clarify the timing of when military ballots must be completed for local elections and codify how long the Kansas Secretary of State’s Office has to review signatures in support of independent candidates trying to qualify for the ballot.

Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab answers questions from a moderator during a Kansas Chamber of Commerce event at the Embassy Suites by Hilton on Wednesday, Sep. 7, 2022, in Olathe.
Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab answers questions from a moderator during a Kansas Chamber of Commerce event at the Embassy Suites by Hilton on Wednesday, Sep. 7, 2022, in Olathe.

Clay Barker, deputy assistant secretary of state, told lawmakers during a hearing on the bill on Monday that Kansas has needed an elections clean-up bill for 30 years. The proposal will improve voter confidence, he said.

“I feel almost like Shakespeare, ‘Once more unto the breach’ and we’re going to try again,” said Barker, who is a former executive director of the Kansas Republican Party. “I know it’s a lot of stuff and elections are touchy issues.”

But Hayden, Brown and others are raising a host of objections to the legislation as the Kansas Senate considers it. Hayden is calling for more criminal penalties to aid in the enforcement of election laws, while Brown says the bill consolidates power in the Kansas Secretary of State’s Office.

“If you’ve got a statute and there’s no criminal penalty to it, as law enforcement it’s as worthless as the paper it’s written on. We need some criminal penalties in these statutes to hold people accountable,” Hayden said.

Tempel said that if Hayden “was really interested in strengthening Kansas’ election laws,” he would support the bill. She said it “increases transparency, improves election processes, and makes it a crime to tamper with election equipment.”

State Sen. Mike Thompson, a Shawnee Republican who chairs the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee, suggested changes will be made to the legislation to allay concerns but provided few specifics.

Some lawmakers described a sense of whiplash at the sudden opposition after the unanimous House vote. State Rep. Pat Proctor, a Fort Leavenworth Republican who chairs the House Elections Committee, said the legislation was supposed to be non-controversial. Any provisions that received objections were removed, he said.

Proctor said he has the “deepest respect” for Hayden but said most election crimes are already felonies. “I mean, what is he looking for, crucifixion?” Proctor said.

State Sen. Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican, said he was “still trying to decipher what their opposition is.”