TOPEKA — TOPEKA The Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission fined Wichita City Council member Michael ODonnell $500 for using his government computer to send a campaign e-mail supporting a friend.
ODonnell had agreed to a consent decree acknowledging that his actions violated state ethics law. Before the commissioners deliberated the fine, in both open and closed sessions, their lawyer had recommended that the penalty fall between $25 and $500.
The commission lawyer, Camille Nohe, advocated for a fine closer to $500, citing statements that ODonnell made to newspapers, including The Wichita Eagle, shortly after the violation came to light.
She also said the fact that ODonnell sent the offending e-mail during a City Council meeting also argued in favor of the higher end of the agreed penalty.
The e-mail at issue was sent by ODonnell to 39 people on Oct. 4. It was an invitation to a political fundraiser on behalf of his friend, state Sen. Garrett Love, R-Montezuma.
ODonnell, a freshman council member who is often on the short end of 6-1 council votes, initially said the complaint was a political hit job aimed at muting his conservative voice, including his opposition to an incentive package to spur development of a boutique hotel downtown.
Later, he apologized for criticizing his fellow council members and Mayor Carl Brewer.
Wednesday, ODonnell expressed contrition for violating the ethics law.
He and his lawyer, Steve Kearney, pleaded for leniency because ODonnell had not been trained on what he could and could not do on his city-issued computer. Kearney presented the commission a letter showing that a state ethics seminar was held several months before ODonnell was elected to the council.
After the commission deliberated in closed session, Commissioner John Solbach made a motion proposing a fine of $234. He did not explain how he had arrived at that exact amount, but said he felt it was sufficient punishment.
Im one who believes we should do the minimum necessary to accomplish our purposes, he said.
Commissioner Mark Simpson argued that he didnt put much stock in what ODonnell said to the newspapers or his argument that he hadnt been trained on ethics law.
Its up to you to know how to act appropriately, he told ODonnell.
The motion for a $234 fine died on a 4-4 split; a follow-up motion for a $500 fine passed 5-4.
After the meeting, ODonnell said he was disappointed that the higher fine prevailed. He said previous commissioners have fined candidates as little as $100 for substantially similar violations they committed while campaigning for themselves.
While state laws allows ODonnell to tap his campaign fund to pay the fine, he said hell pay it out of his own pocket because he sees it as a matter of personal responsibility.
If it had been the $234 fine or the $500 fine, it doesnt change the fact that Ive learned a valuable lesson from this, in that I look forward just to moving on with my political life and hopefully serving the citizens of Wichita and my district.
They elected me to do a job, not to play whack-a-mole with ethics violations.