Twice in the past two days, Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau has gone on the offensive against Commissioner Michael O’Donnell, accusing him of corruption. O’Donnell says Ranzau is bashing him because he’s worried about his own political future.
In commission meetings on Wednesday and Tuesday, Ranzau tried to keep O’Donnell off the board that runs Wichita Area Technical College and said O’Donnell had tried to steer the county toward buying an office building from a friend.
That represents an escalation in an ongoing feud between the two Republican commissioners that started in November, when Ranzau accused O’Donnell of abusing his power as a commissioner to try to benefit friends and campaign contributors.
Ranzau’s latest criticism came during the usually mundane step of appointing commissioners to represent the county on interagency boards.
Ranzau tried to deny O’Donnell an appointment to the Sedgwick County Technical Education and Training Authority.
“I think we all know there’s an ongoing FBI investigation that hangs over this commission like a dark cloud,” Ranzau said. “I think until that’s resolved, and for a variety of other reasons, that it would be in the best interest of this commission not to appoint Commissioner O’Donnell to this board, or any other board for that matter.”
Last year, several reporters and others were informed by the U.S. Justice Department that their phone calls to and from O’Donnell and prominent Wichita business owner Brandon Steven had been intercepted in a wiretap, Steven said at the time that the federal government was interested in high-stakes poker games and his attempt to open a casino in southeast Kansas.
The intercepts occurred when O’Donnell was a state senator, prior to his election to the County Commission.
Two other Wichitans whose phones were tapped – Danny Chapman and Daven Flax – pleaded guilty last month to federal charges in the investigation. No charges have been brought against O’Donnell or Steven.
During Wednesday’s meeting, none of the other commissioners supported Ranzau’s bid to keep O’Donnell off the training board. He was appointed on a 4-1 vote.
Contacted after the meeting, O’Donnell said he had no comment on Ranzau’s remarks.
But on Tuesday, he said he thinks Ranzau has been targeting him because Ranzau is worried about his bid for re-election.
“Richard knows he’s going to lose this election coming in August,” O’Donnell said. “I think he’s just acting out on that knowledge that his days are numbered on the commission.”
Ranzau’s reply: “I may or may not lose the next election, but I’m going to stand up against corruption. He (O’Donnell) doesn’t like it and his financial supporters don’t like it, but I’m not going to be bullied and I’m not going to back down.”
Ranzau’s comments about the FBI investigation came a day after he said O’Donnell had improperly injected himself into the process of finding new office space to house county government.
Last month, the commission voted to pursue negotiations to buy the Riverview Building, a mirrored glass tower at 345 N. Riverview.
At the time, the commission rejected a competing proposal for a building complex at 150 N. Main because of concerns over its age, potential renovation costs, lack of dedicated parking and fragmented ownership.
At Tuesday’s commission/staff meeting, County Manager Michael Scholes reported that 150 N. Main “has since come back as a potential” in the search for a new county building.
Ranzau said O’Donnell is behind reconsideration of the building and was interfering with the process.
“We can’t have commissioners cherry picking buildings for their friends,” Ranzau said. “I’ve been told that this started because of Commissioner O’Donnell talking to David Wells, one of his friends, about maybe getting this building and renovating this building and selling it to us.”
He said if the county reopens consideration of 150 N. Main, it needs to entertain any new offers from other potential building sellers to maintain fairness in the process.
“We can’t keep doing this,” he said. “We made a decision in an open meeting (to negotiate on the Riverview Building). If we want to open it up to everything because things have changed, that’s fine.
“But I guess this doesn’t look good gentlemen. Behind the scenes, a commissioner tells the staff to ‘go look at this building, I’ve talked to a friend of mine.’”
O’Donnell remained silent during the meeting, but later said he did ask staff to reconsider the building after talking with Wells, one of the owners of Key Construction who has been active in numerous downtown renewal projects.
O’Donnell said he did nothing wrong.
“The staff is doing a review of it to see if it’s a good fit or not, but I personally am not involved in it,” he said.
Commissioner David Unruh said O’Donnell told him about his initial conversation with Wells and they set up a meeting between them, Wells and Deputy County Manager Tom Stolz.
“We called Dave Wells and he repeated his whole thing and then we told the deputy county manager to kind of put it in the system and start evaluating and see if it has any viability,” Unruh said. “To my estimation, we were not outside of any process or outside of any authority.”
Both O’Donnell and Unruh said their motivation was to try to get the best deal for the taxpayers on a building.
“We just had a new twist on an old consideration and thought, well, let’s see what that’s all about,” Unruh said. “I know one of my colleagues takes great umbrage at that and thinks we’re making promises and making deals, but frankly it just is not so.”
If the county does move forward on either building, it will move the governing functions and offices out of the county courthouse to clear space for expansion of the courts and the district attorney’s office.