By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska’s governor is coming under fire for being driven from Lincoln to Omaha to meet with a university regent about the search for a University of Nebraska president — a job he has since applied for.
The chairman of the state Democratic Party says the governor shouldn’t have spent a Monday morning in mid-May traveling two hours to meet with the regent to talk about his interest in the job while on the state’s dime and time.
According to an email obtained under the state open records law, Gov. Dave Heineman was driven to Omaha on May 19 at 9 a.m., met with University of Nebraska Regent Howard Hawks at his workplace, Tenaska, and returned to Lincoln at 10:45 a.m.
Normally that wouldn’t raise eyebrows, except that at the time the governor was considering applying for the job as president of the university, and Hawks is the chairman of the Board of Regents. Hawks said the governor discussed the university system, indicated his interest in being president and asked about the selection process. Hawks couldn’t recall any prior times the governor traveled to Omaha to meet with him about university matters.
Vince Powers, chairman of the state Democratic Party, says the governor should not have made the trip during the day using his taxpayer-funded vehicle and state Highway Patrol troopers for security.
“He should not have used public resources to do it and he shouldn’t have done it during business hours,” Powers said.
Powers discovered the Omaha trip after making a public records request in connection with an ethics complaint the Democratic Party filed against the governor alleging he violated state law by holding a May 28 news conference to announce he applied for the job as NU president.
The complaint filed with the state Accountability and Disclosure Commission claims Heineman violated the law by using staff, stationery and government resources to hold the news conference and send a letter announcing his application to NU regents. The complaint also alleges the governor used taxpayer dollars to set up and attend the meeting with Hawks.
A provision in the state Political Accountability and Disclosure Act prohibits public officials from using their office or government resources for personal financial gain, although there is an exception in the statute that allows incidental or trivial use of resources. Violations of the law are Class 3 misdemeanors.
Now, Powers says, the governor further abused public resources by making a trip to Omaha essentially to “apply for a job.”
“The violation is that he did it during business hours,” Powers said. “When he was looking for a job, he was supposed to be working for the taxpayers.”
But the governor sees things differently. He said he requested the meeting with Hawks and talked about the presidential selection process and his interest in the job, but he also puts in more than 40 hours a week and is driven everywhere in a state-owned Suburban, flanked by security.
“The governor is on duty 24/7, so whenever he or she goes to a meeting with constituents, attends a luncheon or goes to Walmart, the State Patrol drives,” Heineman said in an interview. “Any good lawyer would know this. I am sure Mr. Powers is well aware of that.”
He said he returns phone calls and does paperwork while traveling in the state SUV.
“My vehicles tend to be my office,” he said. “In this job, I think most (people) understand you’ve got to be available all the time. When else would you do a meeting like this? I don’t have any doubt I’m putting in way more than 40 hours a week.”
Powers doesn’t buy that answer. He said the governor is on call all the time, but he easily could have held a meeting with Hawks on the phone or in the evening.
“It’s true that the governor has a work day and then he’s on call,” Powers said. “He can do job interviews when he’s on call, not during official business hours.”
Asked why he traveled to Omaha to meet with Hawks rather than pick up the phone, Heineman said, “I thought it was important to meet him face to face.”
“Isn’t that him pushing his power around a bit?” Powers said.
Heineman has been criticized for going public with his candidacy for the NU job by those who fear he dissuaded other good candidates from applying. On the day of the press conference, Hawks released a curt statement saying the governor should stop asking for one-on-one meetings with regents, NU chancellors and other administrators, calling his requests inappropriate.
But the governor said he went public with his candidacy to be transparent, because reporters had been regularly asking him whether he was going to apply for the job. He disagreed that his entry into the candidate pool might have a chilling effect on others.
“If you want to be the president … you ought to really want it,” he said.
Asked if he was surprised by the controversies that have erupted since the press conference, Heineman said, “Not totally. I’m going to be held to a higher standard of scrutiny. I accept that challenge.”
State employees have been disciplined for using their work email for private matters, Powers said. In fact, Heineman’s former No. 2 man, Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy, resigned in February 2013 after making hundreds of phone calls to women using his state cell phone, even though it was an unlimited phone plan. At the time, the governor said public officials are held to a higher standard and “that trust was broken.”
In that case, the Accountibility and Disclosure Commission found Sheehy used the state-owned cell phone for personal purposes, violating a state law on state phone use and the state Accountability and Disclosure Act. Sheehy ultimately reimbursed the state $500 and was fined $1,000 by A&D.
Heineman has said Powers’ complaint is politically motivated, but if the commission finds he violated the law, he ‘ll reimburse the state for the costs.
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