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Johnson County's top lawyer sounded concerns that sheriff was trying to interfere with elections

Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden says he won't require his employees to get tested or vaccinated, saying he prefers to leave such choices up to individuals.
Shawnee Mission Post
Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden has called his office’s months-long, taxpayer-funded probe into the 2020 and 2021 election results a “criminal investigation” and has rebuffed requests to produce records related to his office’s work on the matter.

Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden, who said his office is investigating fraud in the 2020 election without offering specifics or evidence, made requests to have law enforcement involved in upcoming elections, according to a memo written by the county's chief legal counsel.

Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden questioned county election officials at a private meeting earlier this month about why ballot drop boxes were available at public libraries in the 2020 election, and asked whether drop boxes would be eliminated in future elections.

At that meeting, held on July 5, a Hayden staffer also requested that sheriff’s deputies be present at the Johnson County Election Office when ballots were counted at upcoming elections.

And Hayden offered to have his staff drive in unmarked vehicles to pick up ballots from ballot drop boxes.

Those are among some of the requests Hayden made during the July 5 meeting with Johnson County Election Office, according to a memo written two days later by Peg Trent, Johnson County’s chief legal counsel.

“As we discussed, my concern is that these requests give the appearance that the Sheriff’s office is attempting to interfere with an election and to direct a duly authorized election official as to how an election will be conducted,” Trent wrote to Hayden after summarizing the July 5 meeting, in which Hayden challenged the integrity of Johnson County elections and requested the participation of law enforcement in election procedures.

The letter was obtained by KCUR through a Kansas Open Records Act request.

The Johnson County Sheriff's Office did not respond to a request for comment left late on Friday. On Monday afternoon, a sheriff's spokesperson said Hayden did not believe Trent's letter was accurate.

"We have no intention of asserting ourselves into any election. That is illegal," said Johnson County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Shelby Coburn in an email. "We have been requested by the Board of County Commissioners to provide security. We made suggestions to help with security. That’s as far as that has gone."

Trent’s memo surfaced as Hayden, a Republican, ramps up his rhetoric about a criminal investigation into unspecified claims of election fraud in Johnson County during the 2020 election. And it comes as other right-wing government officials and politicians continue their insistence, without evidence, that fraud delivered President Joe Biden his presidency over Donald Trump.

Since then, Republican-controlled states have passed legislation to limit voter access to polls despite the absence of persuasive evidence of wrongdoing in the 2020 elections.

Hayden last week paid a visit to a gathering in Las Vegas of the Constitutional Peace Officers Association, a group that believes sheriffs have more authority than anyone else at any level of government in their own counties. There, Hayden told the group that his investigation into election fraud continues, even though he has presented no evidence pointing to impropriety.

Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden says he won't require his employees to get tested or vaccinated, saying he prefers to leave such choices up to individuals.
File photo
Shawnee Mission Post
Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden has called his office’s months-long, taxpayer-funded probe into the 2020 and 2021 election results a “criminal investigation” and has rebuffed requests to produce records related to his office’s work on the matter.

Hayden noted that President Donald Trump failed to win Johnson County in 2020, according to a July 13 article in the Kansas City Star that described Hayden’s remarks during a panel in Las Vegas called “2000 Mules: Law Enforcement Has To Step In At This Point. Will Sheriffs Investigate?”

“So I didn’t know anything about elections. We’re cops,” Hayden said, according to The Star. “So we’ve been educating ourselves about elections. I’ve sent my detectives through, I’ve got a cyber guy, sent him through, to start evaluating what’s going on with the machines.”

Hayden has cited the increase in voters registering as Democrats in Johnson County as a cause for his suspicion of the county’s elections, according to a Shawnee Mission Post article last week.

Since March 2011, voters registering as Democrats have increased 65%, while voters registering as Republicans have increased 10% over the same span. Libertarian registrations have increased 147%.

The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office justified its refusal to provide records sought by the Shawnee Mission Post about the sheriff’s probe into election matters by saying records involved an ongoing criminal investigation.

KCUR submitted its KORA request – which sought, among other things, any and all records pertaining to the July 5 meeting – to the Johnson County Election Office.

Through a spokesperson, Fred Sherman, the Johnson County Election Commissioner, and other county officials present for the meeting declined to comment for this story, except to say Trent's letter accurately recounted the July 5 meeting. Sherman has defended the propriety of elections under his supervision.

And Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, a Republican, has said no evidence exists to support the notion that fraud affected the 2020 election results.

Present with Hayden at the July 5 meeting was Sherman, assistant Johnson County election commissioner Josh King and assistant county manager Joe Waters along with several deputies and staff from the sheriff’s office, according to Trent’s letter.

“As noted in our telephone conversation, the Sheriff’s office role in providing oversight of security for county buildings, including the election building, is different than oversight of election operational procedures,” Trent said.

Trent’s letter, which also recapped a telephone conversation she had with Hayden after the July 5 meeting, said it was her understanding that the meeting was called to “discuss security cameras on election ballot boxes.”

“During this meeting, you inquired of County staff about prior elections, challenged the integrity of elections in Johnson County, and requested that local law enforcement participate in the current election procedures,” Trent said.

Trent’s letter outlined specific questions and requests from Hayden:

  • Hayden questioned why ballot boxes were located at public libraries in 2020 against his staff’s recommendations and asked whether Sherman would eliminate drop boxes.
  • Hayden asked to limit the hours that ballot drop boxes were available.
  • Hayden said that all ballots by law must be printed in Kansas, even though election laws in Kansas carry no such requirement.
  • Hayden expressed his concern that the election office would not investigate or police a limit on the number of advanced ballots – 10 – that someone can drop off for other voters. 
  • Hayden offered to have his staff collect ballots at ballot drop boxes.
  • Hayden suggested that ballots should be counted at drop box sites.
  • Hayden offered to have his staff drive unmarked cars to pick up ballots from drop boxes.
  • One of Hayden’s staffers asked to have a sheriff deputy present in the county election office’s “E Room” while ballots were counted.
  • Hayden suggested that signature verification by election officials was not done in compliance with how his office conducts criminal investigations.

“You (Hayden) clarified that you were seeking information in preparation to prosecute certain election crimes that may occur,” Trent wrote. “I recognize your authority to investigate a report of a crime. We will continue to work with your office on any potential crimes we become aware of.”

Trent’s letter pointed out that state and federal laws govern elections, with Kansas law naming the Secretary of State as the chief election officer. In Kansas, sheriffs have authority to investigate election-related misconduct, such as disturbing the peace at polling locations, obstructing people as they approach voting locations and soliciting contributions within 250 feet of a polling place.

“The procedures and duties are set out and we cannot, and will not, permit a violation of duty or statute,” Trent wrote. “From our telephone conversation, you acknowledged that the roles and responsibilities ascribed to your elected office including prosecution of election crimes. The County, in turn, through the election commissioner, will attend to its assigned roles and responsibilities and will continue to execute fair and impartial elections for county citizens.”

On Monday, the ACLU of Kansas issued a statement denouncing Hayden's proposals, calling them efforts to intimidate voters, reduce voting access and, in some instances, could violate state laws.

"Sheriff Hayden himself has admitted his lack of expertise in the subject area." ACLU of Kansas said. "However, Sheriff Hayden continues to engage in conduct that borders on intimidation of election officials, and his comments undermine confidence in Kansas elections. His pursuit of a criminal investigation no one but himself seems to have asked for is cause for great concern, especially when it is accompanied by proposals that could violate state law and intimidate voters."

This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPRKCUR 89.3Nebraska Public Media NewsSt. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

For more in-depth news from Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska, we invite you to follow us on Twitter.

Updated: July 18, 2022 at 5:00 PM CDT
This story was updated at 5 p.m. on July 18 to add a comment from the Johnson County Sheriff's Office.
Updated: July 18, 2022 at 3:41 PM CDT
This story was updated at 3:40 p.m. on July 18 to add comments from the ACLU of Kansas in response to Sheriff Calvin Hayden's proposals
Steve Vockrodt is the former investigative editor for the Midwest Newsroom.
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