TOPEKA — Three members of the Sedgwick County Commission on Sunday denounced Republican colleague Michael O’Donnell after release of a secret recording of O’Donnell, a Wichita city councilman and a Kansas House member revealed them plotting to deceive the public about their role in a false campaign video accusing a Democratic candidate for mayor of sexual harassment.
Commissioners Lacey Cruse, David Dennis and Jim Howell made clear O’Donnell’s statements on the 45-minute recording, including political advice to attack first and “avoid the truth at all expense,” made it impossible for him to continue serving the county.
In the at-times chaotic recording, made shortly before the November 2019 mayoral election and released to the public due to a pending lawsuit, O’Donnell said it might be possible to blame their sleazy campaign attack on a former Kansas Republican Party chairman. He also declared such coverups to be “standard political operations.” He expressed admiration for the good sense of Democrats to betray each other quietly. And, he said, there wasn’t a pro-life person unhappy with the assassination a decade ago of Wichita abortion doctor George Tiller.
“Michael O’Donnell has proven to be a risk and major liability to Sedgwick County,” said Cruse, a Democrat. “I’m not shocked by what we all heard on this tape because I have witnessed this type of unethical behavior for almost two years. I’m not willing to get in line and be quiet. This behavior is not okay and those who choose to be silent, those who are not willing to speak out about this publicly, are part of the problem.”
Howell, the GOP chairman of the county commission, went further and urged O’Donnell, Wichita City Councilman James Clendenin and Kansas House Rep. Michael Capps to immediately resign from public office.
“The people of Sedgwick county deserve representation that is ethical, above reproach and honest,” Howell said. “The actions of these men in the ‘Protect Wichita Girls’ scandal is reprehensible and embarrassing to our community.”
So far, the three Wichita politicians have chosen to cling to their jobs. O’Donnell is seeking re-election to the county commission on Nov. 3. In August, Wichita voters decided to end Capps’ career in the Kansas House effective in January. Capps was hammered in the GOP primary, receiving just 25% of the vote. Clendenin, a member of the city council since 2011, isn’t on the 2020 ballot.
On Monday, Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said an investigation of the video controversy had been initiated in cooperation with the Wichita Police Department and the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Department.
“When the investigation is complete,” Bennett said, “a determination will be made by this office as to whether there is a factual and legal basis for further legal proceedings. At that time, any decision will be made public.”
The district attorney said Kansas law forbid initiation of a recall process for an elected official when the subject of the recall was less than 180 days from the conclusion of a term in office. The statute precludes such action against O’Donnell and Capps, but not Clendenin.
The blame game
In the recording, released by attorneys to Wichita news outlets, the three politicians and the producer of the video agreed to blame Sedgwick County Republican Party chairman Dalton Glasscock for orchestrating the commercial. They considered and rejected the idea of also fingering Kelly Arnold, who has served as Sedgwick County’s clerk since 2008 and was the Kansas GOP chairman from 2013 to 2019.
The malicious video, posted to Facebook and YouTube, featured unidentified women silhouetted against a menacing background who alleged without evidence sexual harassment by state legislators. The target was then-Democratic mayoral candidate Brandon Whipple, who by implication was accused of engaging in misconduct as a member of the Kansas House. In closing moments of the video, the women say, “Stop Brandon Whipple.”
The video was apparently viewed more than 400,000 times. It was traced to a New Mexico shadow company, Protect Wichita’s Girls LLC, that was linked to Capps.
Whipple, who said the video was part of a political misinformation campaign, easily won the November 2019 election. He defeated incumbent Republican Mayor Jeff Longwell by more than 10 percentage points. Longwell’s re-election was hampered by reports he intervened to award the new water plant contract for the state’s largest city to his political supporters and friends.
Shortly after the video began appearing online in October 2019, Whipple filed a lawsuit against video producer Matthew Colborn and two John Does. Colborn, who recorded the four-person conversation in which the coverup and misdirection was mapped out, was dropped from the suit in exchange for turning over the audio recording and other evidence to Whipple’s lawyers. The lawsuit has been amended to target O’Donnell, Clendenin and Capps.
Michael Shultz, the Wichita attorney for Colborn, said his client regretted participating in the underhanded assault and learned painful lessons about politics, relationships and business. Colborn is being scapegoated in the public eye by the scandal, Schultz said.
“Matthew was at the meeting where Michael O’Donnell, James Clendenin and Michael Capps planned to push the blame for this ad onto Dalton Glasscock and others,” Schultz said. “To protect himself, he recorded that conversation. We are releasing that recording now to demonstrate the accuracy of what Matthew has now said and to try and stop those who continue to attack him.”
The meeting that produced the secret recording was called to help Capps prepare for a 2019 radio interview on the video controversy with Wichita talk show host John Whitmer, a former Republican state legislator. Capps and O’Donnell sounded confident Whitmer would be sympathetic to their claims, asserting Whitmer was opposed to election of a Democrat as mayor and had a strong dislike for Glasscock.
“John, though, wants Dalton’s head. He doesn’t know how to hunt. He just wants to collect,” Capps said on the recording.
Capps, who was angry Glasscock had previously called for his resignation, could be heard on the recording practicing his talking points in advance of the radio interview, including: “Let me be clear to your listeners and to you John. I had nothing to do with the production of this video.”
O’Donnell advised Capps to claim firsthand knowledge that both Glasscock and Arnold spoke of plans designed to conceal information about who was responsible for the video. O’Donnell said linking the pair would deflect damage to the Sedgwick County Republican Party, because it would appear “more of a conspiracy by the party to cover itself.”
Later in the conversation, the group decided Arnold was too influential among Sedgwick County Republicans to accuse of misconduct. Backlash from Arnold could get out of hand, so they agreed Glasscock would be framed alone. They also agreed it would be useful to place responsibility at Glasscock’s feet if the Republican mayor lost the campaign to Whipple.
“Nobody questions Kelly (Arnold) being an ultra-party guy, a conservative,” O’Donnell said. “I just think naming him in this deal will bring added scrutiny that we, particularly James (Clendenin) and I don’t need.”
Narrative not ideal
Clendenin, the Wichita city council member, said labeling Arnold as a responsible party could open an unsavory two-front political conflict. He also predicted maneuvering their way out of the Whipple video scandal by boxing in Glasscock wouldn’t “go as smoothly as we’re talking about it right now.”
“This is not an ideal narrative,” Capps said. “I’m going to accept the fact that it is not. But I’m also looking at this purely from a business/political perspective. That it’s either our necks or his.”
“I’ve always learned in politics,” O’Donnell said, “it’s always avoid the truth at all expense. Right? And, just go on the attack.”
O’Donnell at several points in the recording recommended they each be vague when pointing fingers at other people, because specifics could come back to haunt them if a lawsuit went to the discovery stage or a trial.
In 2018, O’Donnell was indicted on federal charges that included 23 counts of wire fraud and three counts of money laundering. The allegations of campaign finance misconduct related to his campaign for the Kansas Senate and O’Donnell’s decision to write a series of checks from a campaign account to friends. He was acquitted last year of 21 counts and the jury couldn’t reach a verdict on five counts. He described the trial as the worst experience of his life.
“I don’t think we’re all culpable like for a lawsuit or something,” O’Donnell said on the audio recording, “but what I think — I just don’t ever want it to get into discovery mode.”
On Monday, a spokesman for the Kansas Republican Party said the organization’s leadership didn’t want to comment at this time about the scandal in Wichita.
Kansas Democratic Party chairwoman Vicki Hiatt offered praise for the Sedgwick County Republican Party for expressing concern about the video controversy and emphasized the confirmed culpability of O’Donnell in the political attack.
“The KDP encourages the Kansas GOP to follow the leadership displayed by Dalton Glasscock and the Sedgwick County Republicans to similarly disavow Mr. O’Donnell’s candidacy,” Hiatt said.
The state Democratic Party also released a photograph of O’Donnell standing with U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, a Republican in a tight race for U.S. Senate against Democratic Kansas Sen. Barbara Bollier.
“What games are Roger Marshall and Michael O’Donnell playing?” the Democrats claimed Kansans deserved to know. “Does Roger Marshall stand by his ‘friend’ Michael O’Donnell’s actions?”
As if there wasn’t enough drama in Whipple’s life, a Wichita musician and retired firefighter was arrested Oct. 16 on suspicion of threatening to kidnap and kill the mayor due to frustration with the city’s COVID-19 mask ordinance.