KC police board member Michael S. Kilgore abruptly resigns amid conflict-of-interest questions

Amid persistent conflict-of-interest questions, Kansas City’s newest police board member resigned Wednesday, saying he wanted to avoid additional controversy.

The surprise action came one day after a reporter from The Star asked Michael S. Kilgore, an attorney at the personal injury law firm of Humphrey, Farrington and McClain, about his position on the Board of Police Commissioners and the fact that two other attorneys at his firm had in recent months represented clients who wanted to sue the board.

A day after defending his position on the board, Kilgore stepped down, saying he didn’t want to become a distraction.

“I believe I can be walled off, as I have been, but I don’t want there to be any questions about my effectiveness or my contributions,” he said. “I have a lot of admiration and respect for the police officers and Police Chief Darryl Forté.”

Gov. Jay Nixon appointed Kilgore to the five-member board in January, five days after another attorney at Kilgore’s firm filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the mother of Kenny Gurley, who was shot in a disturbance with police in 2010 in the Ruskin Heights area.

Former board members said that lawsuit should have been disclosed to Nixon’s office during the vetting process as a possible conflict, but Kilgore said he never was asked about potential conflicts. The governor’s office did not respond to emails from The Star.

A partner in Kilgore’s law firm also recently agreed to represent Stephanie Bruno, widow of Anthony Bruno, an off-duty firefighter who was fatally shot by an off-duty police officer trying to arrest him in December while working security for a downtown hotel.

No lawsuit has been filed in that case, but a partner in Kilgore’s law firm, Ken McClain, represented Bruno on a national television program last week and said this week he was weighing his options.

The lawsuit and potential lawsuit set off alarms for Kilgore’s fellow board members in February, but he assured them he could continue serving on the police board if he did not financially benefit from the lawsuits and if he abstained from discussion of the lawsuits on both sides of the equation. He even sought an opinion from the state’s legal ethical counselor, who gave him a nonbinding informal advisory opinion last month that supported his position.

But his request to the counselor only discussed the Bruno potential lawsuit, not the one that already had been filed.

Either way, the counselor’s response satisfied police board president Alvin Brooks, who said the lawsuits would be handled by the attorney general’s office since the department is a state agency.

“Since the attorney general is defending both cases, it’s up to them to ask for another opinion,” he said Wednesday before Kilgore resigned, adding that the situation “certainly is awkward.”

Former board members were not swayed by the informal advisory opinion. They said the situation represented a giant conflict of interest for Kilgore and one they had not seen in recent history. Police board members are the legal entities who get named in lawsuits filed against the department. They said Kilgore could not recuse himself as a defendant.

“His law firm is suing him,” said Terry Brady, an attorney who previously served as both an attorney to the police board and as a police board member. “That was just understood that you didn’t do that. It’s totally inappropriate.”

Karl Zobrist, an attorney who left the board in 2010, said during his decade of service he had been served in dozens of lawsuits, had sat at the defense table in numerous lawsuits and had been called to testify in lawsuits. Lawsuits often delve into Police Department policies, which are reviewed and approved by board members, who oversee the department’s operations.

“You could get into a situation where Kilgore could be cross-examined by (his law partner),” Zobrist said. “That would be the height of inappropriateness.”

Beyond such direct possible conflicts, Kilgore could have faced problems with indirect benefits, former board members said. If his 16-attorney law firm prevailed with large settlements that lifted the success of the firm, how could that be “walled off” from Kilgore, they asked.

Pat McInerney, an attorney whose term on the police board ended last year, said that attorneys regularly tackle potential conflicts of interest and that most large firms have sophisticated processes in place to flag conflicts.

“Lawyers take it very seriously,” he said. “There’s so much that rides on appearance, especially when you’re talking about a public entity, and something as sacred as public safety and taxpayer money.”

Former board members thought that even though Kilgore didn’t represent the clients seeking the lawsuits, the litigation put him in a bad position.

After learning of the resignation Wednesday, McInerney said, “He did the right thing. He put the interests of the department and the board and the city ahead of others.”

When asked earlier this week, Forté and the Fraternal Order of Police supported Kilgore’s decision to remain on the board.

“He’s been ethical. He’s been fair,” said union leader Sgt. Brad Lemon.

No officers had approached union officials with concerns about Kilgore’s situation, Lemon said. But police officials said that could be because many officers did not know about it.

Several officers contacted Wednesday, before Kilgore resigned, said they would have a problem with their boss working for a law firm that was suing them for their actions on the job.