Editorials

O’Donnell charges reach new low. Still ...

Michael O’Donnell said Wednesday he was shocked and confused to find out that his cell phone had been monitored by the federal government in February 2017.
Michael O’Donnell said Wednesday he was shocked and confused to find out that his cell phone had been monitored by the federal government in February 2017. File photo

Michael O’Donnell has embarrassed himself and his constituents far more than a 33-year-old politician should have by this point in his career.

There was the 2011 violation of state ethics law, when he sent a campaign e-mail for a friend from a government computer while in a City Council meeting.

In the Kansas Senate, he was criticized for living rent- and tax-free during his City Council tenure in a home owned by a church where his father is pastor.

In 2016, O’Donnell was investigated by Wichita police for bringing two cases of beer to a birthday party where underage students attended. O’Donnell admitted giving the beer to a woman turning 21. Police closed the case because of a lack of evidence and elements of a crime.

Last August, a day before his 33rd birthday, the new Sedgwick County commissioner was seen in and around a Sunrise Christian Academy van that contained beer and whiskey in a Kansas City Royals parking lot. The private school in Bel Aire, once attended by O’Donnell and where his mother works, said the vehicle had been loaned to someone and then loaned to another person without the school’s knowledge or permission.

Now, O’Donnell has reached major-league embarrassment: federal charges of converting campaign funds to O’Donnell’s personal use or to give friends for non-campaign purposes. The allegations include 23 checks totaling $10,500, making beer in a Christian school van seem trivial.

So this is where we call for O’Donnell to resign his seat on the Sedgwick County Commission. Except we’re not.

“Innocent until proven guilty” is more than a holier-than-thou line from a defense attorney in a courtroom drama. We assume guilt and move on far too often in an America dominated by 24-hour news cycles and social media.

That shouldn’t be the case here. O’Donnell gets a chance to defend himself, and since the allegations are not related to his work on the County Commission, he should remain on the commission if he chooses — or District Attorney Marc Bennett can move to suspend him from office while a court case is active.

Make no mistake, the charges are abhorrent. An elected official is held to higher standards as someone who looks out for best interests of residents, and if O’Donnell’s proven to have removed more than $10,000 from campaign funds illegally, he should not only be booted off the County Commission but should see jail time.

But let’s get there through the judicial process.

Plenty of others have called for O’Donnell to resign. Commissioner Richard Ranzau has been loudest, pointing out that the public has known for more than a year that O’Donnell was the subject of FBI wiretaps and that it created “a dark cloud” over the commission. Ranzau has accused O’Donnell of using his clout as a commissioner to help friends and campaign contributors.

O’Donnell has not spoken publicly since the charges were made public Friday. His first court appearance is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

Voters seem to like O’Donnell, a conservative Republican, at whatever level of government he’s aimed for. First a City Council member, he won a heated 2012 Kansas Senate primary over moderate Jean Schodorf at the height of former Gov. Sam Brownback’s conservative wave.

O’Donnell then ran for Sedgwick County Commission in 2016, defeating four-term incumbent Tim Norton.

Interestingly, O’Donnell has served three levels of government in Kansas over seven years but has yet to complete a full term in any seat. There are doubts he’ll finish this term on the County Commission.

O’Donnell has a decision to make. He can resign his seat as part of a plea deal, or to concentrate on his defense. He can be removed from commission business while the charges are in court, or he can carry on his commission work.

Resignation calls may be loud, but O’Donnell should continue if he thinks he can be effective for his district. He’s not been found guilty of the latest charges, and even with as much as he’s done to shame himself as a politican, O’Donnell gets his day in court.

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)

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