The Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan. has set aside $1 million for its costs in prosecuting Schlitterbahn Waterpark and several of its employees in connection with the 2016 death of Caleb Schwab on the Verruckt water slide.
The episode raises difficult questions about how such requests are handled and paid for. Wyandotte County taxpayers now face a $1 million bill without a full understanding of how the case was transferred to the state.
The initial request apparently came from former Wyandotte County District Attorney Jerome Gorman in December 2016, roughly four months after the fatal accident.
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It isn’t clear why Gorman asked the state to step in. He lost a race for re-election in November of 2016.
It also isn’t clear if the former prosecutor informed elected officials they would be responsible for paying some of the costs, or if the state knew those costs could reach $1 million. If so, did the office of the attorney general advise Wyandotte County of those expenses?
We asked the attorney general’s office to provide the authority under law for assuming the Wyandotte County case. They referred us to a statute and a 1984 Kansas Supreme Court case.
But the statute only says “the attorney general shall consult with and advise county attorneys.” It doesn’t say anything about splitting costs with counties for that advice.
A spokesman for the Unified Government said while Kansas is providing attorneys to prosecute the case, the county is on the hook for “defendant transport, jail, depositions, expert witness ... to whatever else goes into preparing for the trial.”
So far, the Unified Government has spent $94,000 on the case.
The procedure for requesting state assistance and paying for it is cloudy to say the least. At a minimum, state law should require elected officials to approve a transfer of prosecutorial authority if the price tag exceeds a certain amount.
We also don’t know how the state will bill the county. Who will audit the bills? Can the county refuse to pay excessive charges if necessary? Is $1 million a reasonable price tag?
It’s also arguable that some of the costs should be handled at the state level. The tragedy at the Schlitterbahn had a statewide impact — indeed, it drew national attention.
The criminal prosecution of the Schlitterbahn defendants extends far beyond the boundaries of Wyandotte County. All Kansans should bear some responsibility for the legal bill.
That’s particularly true because the lack of regulations in Kansas may have contributed to the tragedy.
These questions should be addressed by elected officials this year. Then, if the process remains unclear, Kansas lawmakers should step in to clarify this process, including who bears responsibility for costs and expenses.