Ethics Commission fines Wichita Councilman O’Donnell $500 for e-mails

As his lawyer Steve Kearney (left) looks on, Wichita City Council member Michael O'Donnell answers question from the Governmental Ethics Commission.

TOPEKA — The Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission has fined Wichita City Council member Michael O’Donnell $500 for using his government computer to send a campaign e-mail supporting a friend.

The commission took that action after deadlocking on a vote to assess a $234 fine.

O’Donnell had agreed to a consent decree acknowledging that his actions violated state ethics law. Before the commissioners deliberated the fine, in both open and closed sessions, their lawyer had recommended that the penalty fall between $25 and $500.

The commission lawyer, Camille Nohe, advocated for a fine closer to $500, citing statements that O’Donnell made to newspapers, including The Wichita Eagle, shortly after the violation came to light.

She also said the fact that O’Donnell sent the offending e-mail during a City Council meeting also argued in favor of the higher end of the agreed penalty.

The e-mail at issue was sent by O’Donnell to 39 people on Oct. 4. It was an invitation to a political fundraiser on behalf of his friend, state Sen. Garrett Love, R-Montezuma.

O’Donnell, a freshman council member who is often on the short end of 6-1 council votes, initially said the complaint was a “political hit job” aimed at muting his conservative voice, including his opposition to an incentive package to spur development of a boutique hotel downtown.

Later, he apologized for criticizing his fellow council members and Mayor Carl Brewer.

Today, O’Donnell expressed contrition for violating the ethics law.

He and his lawyer, Steve Kearney, pleaded for leniency because O’Donnell had not been trained on what he could and could not do on his city-issued computer. Kearney presented the commission a letter showing that a state ethics seminar was held several months before O’Donnell was elected to the council.

After the commission deliberated in closed session, Commissioner John Solbach made a motion proposing a fine of $234. He did not explain how he had arrived at that exact amount, but said he felt it was sufficient punishment.

“I’m one who believes we should do the minimum necessary to accomplish our purposes,” he said.

Commissioner Mark Simpson argued that he didn’t put much stock in what O’Donnell said to the newspapers or his argument that he hadn’t been trained on ethics law.

“It’s up to you to know how to act appropriately,” he told O’Donnell.

The motion for a $234 fine died on a 4-4 split; a follow-up motion for s $500 fine passed 5-4.

After the meeting, O’Donnell said he was disappointed that the higher fine prevailed. He said previous commissioners have fined candidates as little as $100 for substantially similar violations they committed while campaigning for themselves.

While state laws allows O’Donnell to tap his campaign fund to pay the fine, he said he’ll pay it out of his own pocket because he sees it as a matter of personal responsibility.

“If it had been the $234 fine or the $500 fine, it doesn’t change the fact that I’ve learned a valuable lesson from this, in that I look forward just to moving on with my political life and hopefully serving the citizens of Wichita and my district.

“They elected me to do a job, not to play whack-a-mole with ethics violations.”