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Watchdog agency obtains testimony against Kansas official

By ROXANA HEGEMANAugust 8, 2019

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Sedgwick County Commissioner Michael O’Donnell said Thursday that a Kansas government watchdog that purchased transcripts this week of the testimony of four campaign workers at his federal trial was acting in response to a self-referral last year seeking an investigation by the state agency.

Jurors in March acquitted O’Donnell on 21 counts of wire fraud, but deadlocked on two counts of wire fraud and three counts of money laundering related to his state and county campaigns. The judge later dismissed the remaining counts at the request of the government.

Docket notices filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court of Kansas indicate the general counsel of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission bought the transcripts of trial testimony of the four friends who testified against O’Donnell.

“This is in response to us asking them to open an investigation,” O’Donnell said Thursday after talking with his attorney. “They just waited until after trial.”

The ethics commission, established by the Legislature in 1974, is a bipartisan citizen commission that administers, interprets, and enforces the state’s Campaign Finance Act and other laws relating to conflict of interests, financial disclosure, and lobbying. Its members are appointed by the governor and other state officials.

Brett Berry, general counsel for the commission that enforces campaign finance law, said Thursday that he can’t confirm or deny any investigation.

O’Donnell said that he has since learned that the agency’s action came in response to a self-referral made last year in an effort to get the commission to investigate the allegations against him before his federal trial.

“I didn’t even break Kansas law, let alone federal,” O’Donnell said. “That was the whole problem and that is why we self-referred because we wanted it cleared up before (trial), and once you turn in a referral you can’t call and say, ’Never mind, I take it back.”

He contended he has called the commission twice since the trial ended to ask them to clear it up.

O’Donnell noted that Carol Williams, the commission’s former head, testified on his behalf. Williams told jurors that state law leaves payment of staff up to a candidate’s discretion.

In an earlier affidavit, Williams also said that when a questionable expenditure is made by a candidate the matter would usually be resolved by its staff asking the candidate to explain the expenditure and if necessary reimburse the campaign. She said in her 40 years at the commission, she did not recall the federal government prosecuting a state or local candidate for a campaign finance matter.

Prosecutors had alleged that O’Donnell, a former state legislator, took $10,500 of campaign funds to put into his personal checking account or give to friends. But the jury in their acquittal mostly sided with O’Donnell, who argued the funds were legitimate campaign expenditures.

Among the transcripts that the commission purchased are those involving the testimony of Colby Rankin and Jonathan Dennill, two friends of O’Donnell who were given a pair of $1,000 checks following an Aspen ski trip. They told jurors they weren’t sure why O’Donnell gave them the money and then immediately asked for it back. O’Donnell claimed at trial the checks were bonuses for previously unpaid campaign services that the two men used to repay personal ski trip expenses. The counts related to that trip are among those that hung the jury and were subsequently dismissed.

The commission also requested transcripts of the testimony by David Jorgenson and Jack Masterson related to the 21 acquittals connected to a series of checks O’Donnell wrote from campaign accounts. Jorgenson and Masterson had testified they did nothing to earn that money. O’Donnell contended the two had forgotten the work they’d done or were being paid to be on standby, as allowed by the state’s campaign finance law.

The Wichita Republican was elected to the Kansas State Senate in 2012 for a term that ended in January 2017. He did not run for re-election and instead ran for and won a term on the Sedgwick County Commission that began in 2017 and is set to expire in 2020.

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