Politics & Government

Commissioner O’Donnell shocked his phone was tapped

Sedgwick County Commissioner Michael O’Donnell said Wednesday he was shocked and confused to find out that his cellphone had been monitored by the federal government.
Sedgwick County Commissioner Michael O’Donnell said Wednesday he was shocked and confused to find out that his cellphone had been monitored by the federal government. The Wichita Eagle

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)

Sedgwick County Commissioner Michael O’Donnell said Wednesday he was shocked and confused to find out that his cellphone had been monitored by the federal government.

O’Donnell said he learned of the tap on Tuesday when he received a disclosure letter from the U.S. Department of Justice. Members of the media and other citizens who had talked to O’Donnell between June 3 and July 1 of 2015 also received legally required notifications that their conversations had been intercepted by investigators.

“Obviously anybody’s shocked to get that, but I’m looking into it more and should know, should have answers later, know more later, would be the plan,” O’Donnell said. “I haven’t spoken to anybody from the Department of Justice or the FBI about that letter … I’ve never had any communication with them about it.”

The letters to O’Donnell and others informing them of the monitoring came simultaneously with notifications that the federal government had also tapped the cellphone of Brandon Steven, a well-known car dealer who is also a co-owner of Genesis Health Clubs and other business interests. The dates of the monitoring of O’Donnell’s and Steven’s phones overlapped by 10 days, with Steven’s phone tapped from May 15 to June 13 of 2015.

Steven is a professional high-stakes poker player and confirmed Tuesday that the FBI is investigating his gaming activities and an unsuccessful bid to open a casino in southeast Kansas.

O’Donnell said he is uncertain if the monitoring of his phone and the investigation of Steven are related.

“I know people can draw conclusions and put pieces together, but I really don’t know,” he said. “I’m looking forward to learning more.”

At the time of the tap, O’Donnell, a Republican, served as a state senator from west Wichita.

He characterized his relationship with Steven and his family as, “Just campaign contributors, which you can find all that out on the state ethics forms, and friends of mine. But that’s the extent of it.”

The state forms show O’Donnell received $6,000 in donations from Steven, his businesses and family business partners during his single four-year Senate term. O’Donnell didn’t seek re-election to the Senate last year, instead running successfully for a seat on the Sedgwick County Commission.

Asked what he may have talked about with Steven or members of his family during the period his phone was tapped, O’Donnell said, “I do not know and do not remember.”

Asked if he had worked with the Steven family on any business at the state government, O’Donnell replied, “Not that I can think of.”

He said he and Steven probably weren’t the only ones who got notification letters that their phones were tapped. But theirs came to light first because they speak fairly regularly to journalists, who got their own notifications that calls had been intercepted.

He said he thinks people other than Steven and himself had their phones tapped.

“From what I understand a minimum of two” had been notified, O’Donnell said. “I think there are others. Mine just went directly to the media.”

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas

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