Did Heineman skirt the law with personal news conference?

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Posted: May 29, 2014 1:30 PM
Did Heineman skirt the law with personal news conference?
AP photo

DID HE OR DIDN’T HE?: Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman announced at a news conference Wednesday that he has applied to be president of the University of Nebraska. Some are questioning whether the governor skirted the law by holding that news conference.

 

Updated Thursday 1:19 p.m.
By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. — When Gov. Dave Heineman scheduled a news conference on Wednesday, his staff sent out the usual media release notifying reporters that it would be about “education issues.”

But rather than talking about K-12 funding or a higher education initiative, the governor announced that he had decided to apply for a job — as president of the University of Nebraska.

That’s leading some to question whether he violated a law that bans public officials from using their office or government resources to take actions that could result in financial gain.

Vince Powers, an lawyer and chairman of the state Democratic Party, is calling on Heineman to withdraw his application and said the party intends to file a complaint with the state over the governor’s actions.

“Dave Heineman should withdraw his application to be president of the university and apologize to all Nebraskans for his violation of Nebraska law,” Powers said. “His use of a government office and government resources for his own personal financial gain and personal use violated (the law).”

The governor’s staff set up the news conference in the governor’s hearing room in the state Capitol, sent out media releases before and after the event — all on the taxpayer’s dime. He also sent letters to university regents notifying them of his candidacy on his official office stationary, Powers noted.

“The governor should not be using his office to promote his candidacy,” said Jack Gould, issues chairman for Common Cause Nebraska. “He should not be using his office to gain any advantage over any other candidates.”

When asked during the news conference why he chose to publicly announce his plans to apply for the job, Heineman said because reporters often ask him what his plans are after his term expires at year’s end and he believes in transparency. But some people, including regents, expressed concern that Heineman’s decision to go public with his job candidacy could deter other good candidates from applying.

Normally, the governor will answer any questions after holding a news conference on official business, but Wednesday’s press conference was unique in that regard.

Asked about Heineman’s decision to hold a news conference on the subject, Howard Hanks, chairman of the Board of Regents, said, “I think the governor had a right to reveal himself as a candidate if he chose, and if he chose to do that through a press conference from the Capitol, I guess that was his right.”

But was he breaking or skirting the law?

A provision of the state Accountability and Disclosure Act prohibits public officials from using their office or government resources for personal financial gain. Violations of the law are Class-3 misdemeanors.

The governor would get a hefty raise if he gets the job as the university president. He makes $105,000 annually as governor, while former University of Nebraska President J.B. Milliken made nearly $421,000. In addition, the NU Foundation bought a $750,000, 7,000-square-foot Lincoln house for the president to use.

There is an exception in the statute that allows incidental or trivial use of resources. The exception sprang out of a Nebraska Supreme Court case where former Omaha City Councilman Jim Vokal was fined by A&D for taping part of a 2005 campaign commercial from his City Council office. The Supreme Court overturned the fine.

Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission Director Frank Daley said the Supreme Court took the position that Vokal’s action was “not really a use.”

Another statute in the A&D Act says it’s a conflict of interest if taking an official action could result in financial benefit to the public official.

Daley said he’s received some calls questioning Heineman’s actions. The A&D Commission, an enforcement agency, only investigates possible violations of the law if someone lodges a complaint.

Powers pointed out that Heineman’s second-in-command, former Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy, resigned after making hundreds of phone calls to women using his state cell phone last year. At the time, the governor said public officials are held to a higher standard and “that trust was broken.”

“He should resign as did the lieutenant governor who used government resources to call his girlfriend,” Powers said. “Dave Heineman used government resources to try to obtain an advantage to land a lucrative job. By resigning, the governor will be consistent with his treatment of the lieutenant governor and he will have more time to devote to seeking yet another government job.”

Sheehy ultimately reimbursed the state $500 for using the state cell phone for personal calls.

Contact Deena Winter at deena@nebraskawatchdog.org.

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