Crime & Courts

Michael O’Donnell’s phone calls intercepted in federal investigation

Michael O’Donnell.
Michael O’Donnell. File photo

Sedgwick County Commissioner Michael O’Donnell says he was shocked and puzzled to find out that his phone had been wiretapped by the FBI. (video by Dion Lefler / Feb. 15, 2017)

Cellphone calls made by County Commissioner Michael O’Donnell, a former state senator, were intercepted by federal officials in 2015.

A former Wichita Eagle reporter, Bryan Lowry, and a former editor, Sherry Chisenhall, were both sent letters from the U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday saying their communications with O’Donnell had been intercepted. Two other people not associated with The Eagle said they also received letters saying their phone calls with O’Donnell had been intercepted.

It’s unclear what the U.S. Department of Justice was investigating.

O’Donnell did not respond to requests for comment. U.S. attorney’s spokesman Jim Cross said he couldn’t comment on any investigation.

The communications occurred between June 3, 2015, and July 1, 2015, according to the letters. O’Donnell was a Republican state senator representing District 25 in west Wichita at that time, when he was the chairman of several committees: Regulatory Boards and Commissions, Ways and Means; Legislative Post Audit Committee; and Public Health and Welfare.

He is now a Sedgwick County commissioner.

The letters to former Eagle staff members were delivered on Tuesday, the same day that other Eagle staff members were notified by the U.S. attorney’s office that their phone calls with businessman Brandon Steven had been intercepted. It is unclear whether the two situations are related. Steven’s phone calls were intercepted between May 15, 2015, and June 13, 2015.

Steven told The Eagle on Tuesday that he is a subject of a federal inquiry into poker and his involvement in trying to open a casino in Kansas.

The letters sent notifying people that their communications were intercepted were signed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Smith. They said, in part: “This notice does not mean that you are being charged in court with anything. It only means that you, or someone using a telephone subscribed to you, were intercepted talking with a person using the telephone listed above.”

The U.S. attorney’s office has the authority to intercept cellphone calls if it has an affidavit from a federal judge or sometimes also from a state judge, said Charlie O’Hara, a local defense attorney.

“It’s a little more difficult than it would be with a normal search warrant, but they have to have probable cause and the judge has to approve it,” O’Hara said.

The intercepts are limited to 30 days at a time and can then be extended, he said.

The government would then be required to send a letter.

“What they would do is send a letter after the tap is done, and quite frankly, what’s interesting about it is they send it to everyone who’s had contact with that number,” O’Hara said.