We’ve all heard it, you can’t fight city hall. But what happens when the fighter is a top aide to Republican Governor Dave Heineman of Nebraska?
According to an exclusive investigation by Nebraska Watchdog, Heineman’s chief spokesperson has been involved in a war of words with Omaha City Hall. It’s a private battle that grew ugly, involved several city and state offices, and raises questions about whether Heineman’s spokesperson went too far.
Through several interviews and a public records request Nebraska Watchdog has uncovered that for over a year Heineman’s Communications Director, Jen Rae Hein, used the State of Nebraska’s e-mail to register her personal complaints with the city. Many of the written complaints carried her e-mail signature and official title ”Jen Rae Hein, Communications Director to Governor Dave Heineman.”
Hein’s e-mails, involving problems with the builder of her northwest Omaha townhouse, started on August 27th, 2008 and ended 14 months and at least 22 e-mails later on October 8th, 2009. Most of the e-mails went to Omaha’s Chief Building Inspector Jay Davis. But others who received or were copied on one or more e-mails included two Nebraska State Senators, Catherine Leo an aide to Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle, Assistant Omaha City Attorney Alan Thelen, and Omaha City Planning Director Rick Cunningham.
Nebraska Watchdog asked Cunningham, who was appointed Planning Director in July of 2009, if he thought Hein was trying to use her position with the State of Nebraska to put pressure on him. Cunningham told Nebraska Watchdog, “Her (Hein’s) e-mail signature clearly indicated who she was.”
Davis, the man in charge of the city’s building inspections, tells Nebraska Watchdog that as the dispute went on Hein’s e-mails, complete with her job title, were a reminder that she worked for the Governor. Nebraska Watchdog specifically asked Davis if he thought Hein was using her job to pressure him. Davis said there were times during the dispute with Hein when it, “could have been construed as her trying to throw her weight around.”
Nebraska Watchdog has repeatedly asked Hein for an interview to discuss this story but she has declined. She did issue a statement saying, “This is a personal issue and is not in any way related to my professional position. This was made clear to the City of Omaha when they asked me for my daytime contact information.” Hein added, “Any attempt to exploit this personal issue because of my professional position would be extremely unfortunate.”
According to Chief Building Inspector Davis he knew from his first contact with Hein that she was the Governor’s communications director. According to Nebraska Watchdog’s investigation, of Hein’s 22 e-mails to the city, nine carried her official e-mail signature noting she worked for the Governor.
In a statement to Nebraska Watchdog, Governor Heineman wrote, “This is a personal matter between the City of Omaha Planning Department and Jen Rae Hein.”
Building Inspector Davis tells Nebraska Watchdog that investigators with the Nebraska Attorney General’s office contacted him about Hein’s case, which involves Omaha builder Triton Homes.
According to records with the Douglas County Assessor’s office as recently as February 16th, 2010 Hein, who lives in Lincoln, owned a two story townhouse that is part of Triton’s 129 unit Village on Sprague located near 146th Street and West Maple Road in Omaha.
A spokesman for the Nebraska Attorney General’s office tells Nebraska Watchdog the office’s consumer protection division received complaints against Triton from 11 Village on Sprague homeowners. The spokesman says the names of the 11 are not public record.
According to the property manager, Lisa Logsdon of Sue Clark Real Estate Services in Des Moines, since the homes were built in 2005 Hein’s townhouse and several others sustained water damage to their garages and living quarters.
Hein’s first e-mail to the city, obtained by Nebraska Watchdog, was sent from the e-mail address “Jen.Hein @nebraska.gov”. In that e-mail written at 9:42 a.m. on Wednesday, August 27th, 2008 Hein asked Building Inspector Davis if he could meet the developer at her town home at 10:30 that morning. Hein wrote, “They (Triton) told me they had fixed the problem…Clearly, it did not work.” Hein’s message, which was marked urgent, did not include her “Communications Director” signature but she added, “I’m in a newser (news conference) with the Governor now, so I can’t be there.”
The water problems persisted and nearly five months and four e-mails later on Tuesday, January 13th, 2009 at 1:26 p.m. Hein wrote Davis thanking him for some help he was providing. In the same e-mail she also wrote, ”My tenants are threatening lawsuits…Hope all is well for you.”
Five more months and six more e-mails later on June 2nd, 2009 at 11:50 a.m. Hein e-mailed Davis, “Congratulations on your daughter’s graduation. We understand that you won’t be available this weekend, so if you could please send me a paragraph or two about where the City is on this issue…I can share that with homeowners.”
On Monday, June 8th, 2009 at 12:33 in the afternoon Hein e-mailed Davis, “…we need you to come out to the property ASAP…” Three hours later Hein sent a text message to Davis asking, “Are you available by email?” According to Nebraska Watchdog’s investigation that was Hein’s last e-mail to the city until Tuesday September 29th at 11:30 a.m. when Hein e-mailed Omaha Planning Director Rick Cunningham. Responding to a letter Cunningham sent her Hein wrote, “Unfortunately, your letter is not correct in that the City is, indeed, involved…Additionally, can you please explain to me how your position relates to Jay Davis. He has refused to return calls/e-mails for several months.”
Three days later on Friday, October 2nd, 2009 at 7:55 a.m. Hein wrote Cunningham again, “It has been months that the City has avoided returning our calls or speaking with us. No citizen should ever be shut out of his or her government.”
Hein copied that e-mail to two Nebraska State Senators, Scott Lautenbaugh and Pete Pirsch. Lautenbaugh, whose district included Hein’s townhouse, tells Nebraska Watchdog that after receiving a couple of e-mails he spoke with Hein about the issue and she said it was a city matter and there was nothing that could be done legislatively. According to Lautenbaugh, Hein then told him, “to sit tight.” Lautenbaugh said he has heard nothing since. Pirsch tells Nebraska Watchdog he does not remember Hein’s e-mail.
On Thursday October 8th, 2009 at 10:29 a.m. Hein sent Cunningham the final e-mail obtained by Nebraska Watchdog. It was sent two minutes after Cunningham e-mailed Hein, telling her that he was the Director of the Planning Department where Davis works. Hein wrote back, ”Thank you. It was unfair for us to not have responses from your division for months. Completely inappropriate.”
In an interview with Nebraska Watchdog, Cunningham was asked if the city had ignored Hein. Cunningham said, “The City did what it had to do. When you say the same thing over and over, what do you say?”
Davis, the city’s building inspector, tells Nebraska Watchdog his department did what it could. According to Davis, Hein had launched a “personal attack” against the city and wasted hours of his time.
According to the Governor’s office Hein’s use of state e-mail and computer did not violate the law which allows for “essential personal business” that is “kept to a minimum and shall not interfere with the conduct of public business.”
Village on Sprague property manager Lisa Logsdon tells Nebraska Watchdog that, “She (Hein) used her knowledge of the government…just trying to get the work done.”
Logsdon says Hein’s unit was one of the very few that was fixed. According to Logsdon even after Hein’s townhouse was repaired Hein continued to go to bat for the other homeowners.
Davis says, “I think we fixed her unit but she (Hein) has never said that.”
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Reported by Joe Jordan, firstname.lastname@example.org