TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback confirmed Wednesday that he and two of his top aides received letters from the U.S. Justice Department telling them that the federal government intercepted phone calls between them and an ex-legislator’s number.
The Kansas Senate’s top two leaders also received the same letter dealing with phone calls in 2015 from a number for then-state Sen. Michael O’Donnell, a Wichita Republican who now serves on his local county commission in Sedgwick County.
O’Donnell told reporters Wednesday that he was shocked to learn that his phone was tapped in 2015. His comments came a day after businessman Brandon Steven has confirmed he’s the subject of an inquiry into poker and his efforts to open a casino in southeast Kansas in 2015.
Steven led a group of investors seeking the right from a state board to build the casino for the Kansas Lottery under a law that authorized only one in southeast Kansas.
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The board chose another developer in June 2015 — during the period in which the Justice Department officials told Kansas officials their communications were intercepted. The board’s members were appointed by Brownback and legislative leaders, and O’Donnell did not serve on it.
O’Donnell said he is uncertain whether the matter that resulted in the letter to him is related to the inquiry about Steven. The Wichita Eagle first reported Tuesday that it and other parties had received similar letters saying communications with Steven had been intercepted.
Brownback told reporters Wednesday: “We don’t know what it’s about.”
The governor’s office released the copies of its letters. One went to Brownback at the governor’s official residence. Another went to Kim Borchers, his appointments secretary, at her Statehouse office. The third went to Tim Shallenburger, the governor’s chief legislative liaison, at the offices of a state agency that Shallenburger also heads.
Each letter was signed by an assistant U.S. attorney in Kansas and was dated Feb. 1, though Brownback’s office said they were not received until Wednesday. Each letter says “communications were intercepted” between June 3 and July 1, 2015. The casino board picked the developer for the southeast Kansas project June 23.
Jim Cross, the spokesman for the U.S. attorney in Kansas, and Bridget Patton, spokeswoman for the FBI in Kansas City, Missouri, would not confirm or deny an investigation.
“This notice does not mean that you are being charged in court with anything,” each letter said. “It only means that you, or someone using a telephone subscribed to you, were intercepted talking with a person using the telephone number listed above.”
Senate President Susan Wagle, another Wichita Republican, received a letter there Wednesday, said spokeswoman Morgan Said. Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, also confirmed that he received one.
Brownback said he spoke frequently with O’Donnell, both by phone and in person, during the period cited by the letter because O’Donnell served in the Legislature.
Steven and a brother were investors in the proposed Castle Rock casino development along the state line in Cherokee County that was meant to compete head-to-head with the largest Indian casino in northeast Oklahoma.
After the state casino board picked a smaller project near Pittsburg, the Steven brothers and Cherokee County sued. A Shawnee County judge dismissed the lawsuit, but the case is now before the Kansas Supreme Court.
O’Donnell described the Steven family as friends and “just campaign contributors.”
“I’m looking into it more and should know, should have answers later,” he said.
Also contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Roxana Hegeman in Wichita, and Allison Kite in Topeka.
Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna