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Wichita City Council member O’Donnell to face state ethics charge over e-mails

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012, at 9:53 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012, at 6:14 a.m.

Wichita City Council member Michael O’Donnell will appear March 21 before the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission to face a charge that he misused his city computer to raise money for a longtime friend in the Kansas Legislature.

O’Donnell called it “a silly mistake” and said he expects to be fined by the commission for using his city computer to solicit financial sponsorship for an Oct. 30, 2011, meet-and-greet for Sen. Garrett Love, R-Montezuma.

State law prohibits any officer or employee of a state or municipality from using public equipment to advocate for a candidate for state or local office, said Carol Williams, the executive director of the state ethics panel.

“We’ve had cases where candidates have used a fax machine or a computer to develop their brochures, a fax to fax their ads to a newspaper, forwarding e-mails advocating for a candidate,” she said. “It doesn’t happen often, to be sure, and it doesn’t happen in a non-election year.”

The incident is potentially a violation of the Kansas Campaign Finance Act, punishable by a fine of not more than $5,000 for the first violation.

The notice of hearing and O’Donnell agree that 39 e-mails, most sent on Oct. 4, 2011, are the crux of the issue.

O’Donnell said he was first contacted by the ethics panel in November about the allegation, and told “I’d hear back from them.”

But no further notification occurred until last week, when O’Donnell said ethics officials told him they had received the issue again. Earlier this month, council members confirmed to The Eagle that a state probe of O’Donnell’s e-mail account was under way.

O’Donnell calls the issue a “political hit job” and blames his colleagues on the council bench, claiming it has been revived in retaliation for his opposition to the Ambassador Hotel guest tax vote on Feb. 28.

But Williams said the investigation has remained active since November and has been drawn out because of holiday meeting schedules.

O’Donnell said the complaint is the result of a political vendetta against the conservative positions he has taken from the council bench. He specifically blamed Mayor Carl Brewer.

“This is just Carl trying to minimize a conservative voice,” O’Donnell said. “His liberal agenda is not going forward unanimously.”

Brewer declined to elaborate on the investigation, at the request of City Attorney Gary Rebensdorf.

“The entire thing doesn’t make any sense,” Brewer said. “Why would he actually point the finger at me? It’s way out of line.

“I don’t think that much about Michael. He does bring some good things to the table.”

O’Donnell said he doesn’t expect a large fine, perhaps as small as $100. Williams said fines have ranged from nothing to $400 for about a dozen similar incidents in the commission’s history. But she said fines are at the discretion of commission members, and could be affected by the four new members added in late 2011.

“The commission makes this determination and members of that body change routinely,” Williams said. “Technically, you can be fined up to $5,000 for the first violation. When you have new members, their ideas could certainly be different.”

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com.

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