Gov. Pete Ricketts says transparency will be a hallmark of his administration, but his administration has refused to release details about the Nebraska State Patrol’s over-budget overtime costs — specifically, the cost to protect him as he travels the world.
It began, as it often does, with a tip: Ricketts was traveling a lot, and racking up considerable overtime for Nebraska State Patrol officers along the way.
So we began asking questions: How many times has the governor traveled out of state? Where did he go? Has that caused the State Patrol’s overtime to spike?
From the beginning, getting answers wasn’t easy. In response to an open records request, the Ricketts administration released calendars that essentially amounted to the press releases he’d already put out. They had no useful information, since they did not include all of Ricketts’ trips — both public and private.
That’s when we learned Ricketts wasn’t putting all of his travels on the calendar released to the public, and when we tried to get the calendar that included everything, we were thwarted.
A comprehensive list of his out-of-state trips was only obtained through a records request for the dates Lt. Gov. Mike Foley served as acting governor. That allowed us to write a story indicating Ricketts was traveling more than his predecessor.
But that didn’t tell us whether the State Patrol, which protects the governor, was racking up big overtime bills. Patrol spokeswoman Deb Collins said there was no separate budget for executive protection overtime or travel costs. She said those salaries are part of the general budget, which has not been exceeded, and the number of patrol staff assigned to the governor (seven) has remained unchanged since Ricketts took office.
Our questions were immediately converted by Collins into records requests, which allowed the patrol to hide behind a provision in the law that says, basically, government entities don’t have to create records to answer people’s questions.
The patrol’s legal eagles responded to our records request by saying no such expenditure report for the executive protection detail exists, and financial records for overtime and travel aren’t kept in the manner we sought.
We tried another approach: State Patrol divisions prepare briefs every year that include overtime studies; could we get updated information for that? We got a voluminous pile of papers in response to this request, but no updated data for 2015.
So we decided to take one more whack at this by going to the state Department of Administrative Services, which handles personnel. The department’s director said he didn’t see any problem with our request, but by the time we got the department’s response days later, they gave us everything but what we really wanted: overtime figures for the State Patrol.
DAS said it’s not the “custodian” of those records; the State Patrol is. Back to square one.
We were able to get information on the patrol’s total overtime for the fiscal year ending in May, which was over budget by $400,000, but again, the patrol spokeswoman said there was no way of knowing whether Ricketts’ protection was a factor, since there’s no separate budget for that.
However, we want to know whether Ricketts travels — from Chicago Cubs board meetings to European trade missions — is costing taxpayers an inordinate amount of money. So far, it appears we’re not going to get the answer to the question, unless we hire attorneys to challenge the patrol with the attorney general.
It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve had to hire attorneys to help us make a case we’re being illegally denied access to government meetings and records. When the state jobs creation agency refused to disclose its bad loans, we called our lawyers. The attorney general agreed with us, calling one of their arguments “specious at best” and rejecting all of the exceptions they hid behind.
When it appeared the University of Nebraska broke the open meetings law by holding a string of private meetings while searching for a new president, we called our lawyer. We prevailed, although a new president had already been selected by then and it was not possible to “unring the bell,” the AG said.
Reporters — and citizens — shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer just to get basic information from its government. Perhaps we’re asking the question wrong, but they know exactly what we want. They just don’t want to answer the question.
Ricketts says on his website “transparency and accessibility are key principles of my administration,” but his office has done nothing to break this stalemate with the State Patrol. We asked his spokesman, point-blank, to help us get the information. He didn’t.
Promoting transparency sounds good on the campaign trail and in theory, but it’s not nearly as palatable when the press is asking questions you don’t want to answer.
So here we are, left to consider calling our attorney again, filing a complaint with the attorney general, waiting weeks for a decision, and then maybe prevailing and getting some answers.
It’s a simple question, and we’ve given the Ricketts administration months to answer it: have the State Patrol’s executive protection overtime costs gone up since Ricketts took office? Somebody, somewhere in the annals of state government should be able to answer that question without moving heaven and earth.
Perhaps we got a bad tip, and the governor’s travels aren’t contributing to higher overtime costs. Perhaps they are. Either way, we shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer to find out.
Updated 8:25 a.m. Thursday
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