Politics & Government

Michael O'Donnell pleads not guilty, returns to Sedgwick County Commission dais

O’Donnell makes first court appearance on federal charges

(FILE VIDEO) Sedgwick County Commissioner Michael O'Donnell made his first appearance in federal court on Wednesday, May 9, 2018 . O'Donnell is charged with using campaign funds for his personal use.
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(FILE VIDEO) Sedgwick County Commissioner Michael O'Donnell made his first appearance in federal court on Wednesday, May 9, 2018 . O'Donnell is charged with using campaign funds for his personal use.

Five days after his indictment on election crimes, Michael O'Donnell pleaded not guilty to federal fraud and money laundering charges and returned to his regular seat on the Sedgwick County Commission bench, with his mother and father in the front row of the audience for support.

In an indictment proceeding, U.S. Magistrate Gwynne Birzer ordered that O'Donnell remain free on an unsecured bond of $5,000.

She announced the case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren, a former U.S. attorney for Kansas who was appointed to the court by President George W. Bush.

O'Donnell has surrendered his passport pending trial, and Birzer cautioned him not to try to obtain another one.

Neither he nor his attorney, Mark Schoenhofer, would comment after the arraignment. "The case will progress and things will change," Schoenhofer said, adding he might have more to say then.

The arraignment came 4 1/2 hours after O'Donnell had taken his seat at the commission bench for his first public appearance since Friday, when the U.S. attorney's office unsealed the grand jury indictment against him.

The press gallery of the commission meeting room was packed with TV cameras. Apart from that, it was more or less business as usual.

O'Donnell appeared largely unfazed by the extra attention.

His main contribution to the meeting was to try to salve hurt feelings and help delay the removal of a dissident member of the animal control board. When that motion failed, he voted with a 4-1 majority to oust George Theoharis.

Before and after the meeting, O'Donnell would not comment on the charges he faces, implying more information would come out after his first appearance in court.

His parents, the Rev. Michael O'Donnell Sr. and Peggy O'Donnell, former mayor of Bel Aire, said they came to support their son in his first public meeting since the indictments were handed up.

But they would not comment further on the charges, saying they had been instructed by his lawyer to remain silent.

O'Donnell's chief nemesis, Commissioner Richard Ranzau, was uncharacteristically quiet during and after the meeting.

He is the only commissioner to call on O'Donnell to resign and has, for months, publicly assailed O'Donnell's ethics and behavior as a commissioner.

On Wednesday, Ranzau said he thinks he's said enough for now.

"I didn't really think it was necessary" to say anything on Wednesday, Ranzau said. "He's been elected and he's in the office and until he no longer is, I'll serve with whoever's in the office."

O'Donnell faces two counts of money laundering and five counts each of bank and wire fraud.

The indictment alleges that O'Donnell unlawfully converted campaign funds for his personal use and/or payments to friends. It also alleges that O'Donnell filed false reports to the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission in an attempt to cover up illegal spending.

The allegations relate to O'Donnell's campaign account from when he served as a Kansas senator, 2013-2017.

The charges are federal because the alleged illegal payments were processed through federally insured banks and his campaign finance form was sent by Gmail, which means they crossed state lines and back to Google servers on their way to Topeka.

Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau while discussing a grant to a charity medical program. Ranzau has accused fellow Commissioner Michael O'Donnell of "influence peddling" in connection to the grant.