County commissioner defends payments in Kansas fraud trial

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A former Kansas legislator accused of fraudulently taking $10,500 from campaign funds for his personal use told jurors Thursday that the payments were legitimate campaign expenses.

Sedgwick County Commissioner Michael O’Donnell took the stand to defend himself in his federal trial on 23 counts of wire fraud and three counts of money laundering related to his state and county campaigns.

“It is offensive to me and outrageous to me that anybody would assume I would steal money,” he testified.

A federal indictment alleges a scheme whereby O’Donnell allegedly wrote a series of checks in 2015 and 2016 from his “Michael for Kansas” and “Michael for Sedgwick County” campaigns to various people who would cash the checks. Prosecutors alleged some of the money went into his personal checking account and some went to friends.

But O’Donnell contended the payments were made to staffers who worked on his campaign and helped him with his official government duties. To make his point he said his campaign still owes him $3,618 for unreimbursed mileage that he could write a check for to himself if he wanted.

“I am not in public service to make money, but I do have legitimate debts that are owed to me by my campaigns,” he said.

O’Donnell, a 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.

He repeatedly insisted the checks he wrote were “all legal under Kansas law” — drawing at one point a wry remark from Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Smith during cross examination that O’Donnell could append that comment to all his answers. The judge rebuked the prosecutor for the comment.

O’Donnell detailed for hours his payments to staffers, including some which he claimed were bonuses and retainers to friends who worked for him.

But prosecutors grilled him on checks made out to people who had testified earlier in the trial that they either did no work for the campaign or who were not actually working at events such as ball games as O’Donnell had claimed. He said some games were part of his official duties because he was invited to them by the university and had meetings with school officials later.

At one point he tried to explain a friend’s testimony that he was not working by saying that his staffer “didn’t realize what he was doing is work, I should have explained it better... I saw value in having a staffer there.”