Jon Bruning is winning the fundraising war so far in his campaign for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate, but his critics say some of the largesse is the result of decisions he made as attorney general that favored certain industries or companies.
Bruning’s camp says his GOP opponents also get money from industries they regulate and oversee. The difference is, Bruning is raking in much more money from interests outside of Nebraska: About 42 percent of Bruning’s contributions have come from out of state — $1.15 million out of the $2.7 million he’s raised according to OpenSecrets.org. By comparison, 25 percent of State Treasurer Don Stenberg’s contributions have come from outside Nebraska, and a mere 8 percent of state Sen. Deb Fischer’s donations have come from outside the state.
Fundraising information is not yet available for Democrat Bob Kerrey, who entered the race late.
However, outside groups have spent a boatload of money promoting Stenberg, the vast majority of which (more than $1 million so far) is coming from Sen. Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund. Another conservative group, FreedomWorks, has spent nearly $60,000 promoting Stenberg, according to the FEC. And the Club for Growth’s endorsement of Stenberg could bring a million more from the conservative group.
The most glaring example of Bruning’s out-of-state support is a huge infusion of cash he’s gotten from coal country. Over two days in September 2011, Bruning raked in more than $100,000 in contributions from mining interests in Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Indiana.
The money appears to be the fruit of a fundraiser held by Bob Murray, founder and CEO of Murray Energy, which is headquartered in Ohio and has eight coal mines in six states. He is a big contributor to Republicans – he held a fundraiser for Rick Perry two weeks after Bruning’s – and is notorious for fighting unions, safety regulations and the concept that fossil fuels contribute to global warming. His company was also part-owner of the Utah mine where nine miners were killed in 2007.
Murray personally donated $1,670 to Bruning’s campaign, but he, his company officials and other employees refused to talk to Nebraska Watchdog about why.
Reached by phone, Murray Vice President John Forrelli refused to say why he donated $1,200 to Bruning’s campaign. Murray’s son and vice president for business and external affairs, Rob Murray, would not say why he donated $1,400 to Bruning and said via email, “Our company cannot comment on the independent actions of an employee. Any contributions were of their own free will.”
One week after his lucrative fundraiser in coal country, Bruning announced plans to join a court challenge to a new EPA air pollution rule that would be tough on coal-fired power plants. Nebraska public utilities said the new regulation would require them to spend millions retrofitting plants, requiring
an increase in rates.
“EPA’s job-killing mandates on emissions are backed by questionable science matched with unaffordable price tags and unlikely benefits,” Bruning said in a news release at the time. “This is another example of an overreaching federal government run amok.”
Bruning’s skeptics also point to a decision he made in 2004 not to join a lawsuit to stop the merger of two of the biggest coal companies in Wyoming, Arch Coal and Vulcan Coal, reducing competition among coal mines and driving up coal prices. Most of Nebraska’s coal comes from the Wyoming basin.
Fischer’s campaign manager, Aaron Trost, sees a connection between Bruning’s decisions in those cases and his contributions from coal country.
“Jon Bruning’s campaign raised over $100,000 in two days from out-of-state mining interests after that industry received very favorable treatment from Bruning’s attorney general’s office,” he said. “That is an example of some of the questionable fundraising techniques that will put Jon Bruning in an awkward position with the public. Nebraskans will be very uncomfortable that their attorney general, the chief law enforcement officer of the state, is able to parlay his official office’s decisions into big bucks for his Senate campaign.”
But Bruning’s camp says he’s been fighting EPA regulations since 2003 at the request of Nebraska’s public utilities to protect the state’s cheap, reliable electricity.
And they point out the fact that both Fischer and Stenberg receive contributions from industries they oversee. As chair of the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, Fischer has received $13,300 from general contractors, $12,000 from telephone utilities and $2,750 from telecommunications companies – all industries that her committee oversees.
Fischer pushed through a road construction bill last session that will benefit general contractors – the fifth biggest industry supporting her candidacy, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Fischer’s spokesman said she is supported by Nebraskans who like her fiscally conservative, pro-growth policies.
Stenberg has received $3,500 from securities and investment companies, $2,000 from commercial banks, $3,500 from lobbyists and $3,000 from finance and credit companies – all industries the state treasurer can affect.
Bruning has also received more than $10,000 from executives of Monsanto Co., the world’s largest seed producer – and as attorney general, he declined to join an investigation into anticompetitive practices by the company in 2010. At the time, Bruning did not explain his decision not to join seven attorneys general, even though Nebraska is a huge market for Monsanto.
One year later, he attended a celebration of Monsanto’s $135 million seed corn production and research plant in Waco. Bruning touted all the tax breaks and economic incentives the state of Nebraska had given the company to help make the deal work.
Bruning has also received $86,000 from the beer, wine and liquor industry since 2008. Democrats and critics suggest this might have something to do with Bruning’s decision to push for sweetened malt beverages – such as Mike’s Hard Lemonade – to be taxed as though they are hard liquor rather than beer. His office appealed a district court ruling that the drinks should be taxed as hard liquor.
The difference amounts to big bucks for distributors of the so-called “alcopops,” since beer is taxed at 31 cents per gallon while spirits are taxed at $3.75 per gallon. Meanwhile, between 2001 and 2010 Bruning received about $36,000 in contributions from alcohol distributors and wholesalers for his state campaigns and has received about $50,000 from the beer, wine and liquor industry for his U.S. Senate campaign, according to an examination of itemized contributions.
However, Bruning’s camp points out that as attorney general, Bruning is charged with defending the state in legal matters and several states and the federal government tax alcopops in the same manner, and state lawmakers recently passed a bill to do the same.
Trost believes these donations could become a political liability for Bruning.
“Jon Bruning’s campaign fundraising from industries that his attorney general’s office has been favorable toward will put Bruning in a very difficult position if he can make it to the general election,” Trost said “For example, when Bob Kerrey is under fire for his secret deal with Harry Reid, Jon Bruning will be under fire for raising mountains of campaign cash from industries that his attorney general’s office has been favorable towards.”
But perhaps the most publicized connection Bruning has had to a company/donor is Nelnet, a Lincoln-based student loan company. Last year, Bruning and Nelnet got caught up in a controversy after it was discovered that Bruning and two Nelnet executives had bought a $675,000 cabin together near the Platte River.
They bought the lakeside home one year after Bruning was accused of showing favoritism to Nelnet by trying to waive a $1 million settlement he had reached with the company over its business practices.
According to OpenSecrets.org, Nelnet employees have contributed $12,900 to Bruning’s Senate campaign, making the company his ninth largest contributor. In addition, Union Bank (Nelnet is an affiliate of Union Bank) officials have donated $5,450.
Nebraska Watchdog has learned that two months after announcing a $1 million settlement with Nelnet, Bruning took out a loan from Union Bank for between $100,000 and $250,000, according to his 2007 federal financial disclosure form. Then two months later, Bruning announced he was forgiving the $1 million Nelnet settlement – although after controversy ensued, he backed down.
Stenberg’s spokesman, Dan Parsons, said Bruning has been receiving contributions from “his buddies at Nelnet” for years and said his relationship with the company “doesn’t pass the smell test.”
“It comes down to judgment,” Parsons said. “He waived that million-dollar fine, months later, he buys a house on the Platte River with these guys. It shows reckless disregard and it gets to the issue of judgment. He’s tone deaf if he thinks he can behave that way as the state’s top law enforcement officer. It’s reckless. And it raises questions about how he applies the law as attorney general.”
But Bruning’s spokesman said Nelnet gives to both Republicans and Democrats and gave those donations to Bruning before the cabin controversy.
“Nelnet is a politically active company,” Trent Fellers said.
He said Stenberg’s campaign is being “propped up by Washington special interests,” which account for 87 percent of the financial support for his campaign. Matt Hoskins, director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, said his group is comprised of thousands of “freedom-loving Americans in Nebraska” and nationwide.
“Jon Bruning aggressively sought our support last year so it’s pretty hypocritical for him to attack us like this now,” Hoskins said.
Fellers said Bruning has received donations and has volunteers in all 93 Nebraska counties.
“Every decision he’s made as attorney general has been guided by his desire to keep Nebraska families safe,” Fellers said.
Reported by Deena Winter, [email protected]
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