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The Money War: Where the Candidates are Getting Campaign Cash

By   /   April 9, 2012  /   News  /   24 Comments

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]
By: TwitterButtons.com

Editor’s note: to subscribe free of charge to News Updates from Nebraska Watchdog click here


Deena formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.

  • How curious that Deena hasn’t bothered to look at Tenet Healthcare’s political contributions in Nebraska. A company which owns 50 hospitals nationwide, only one in Nebraska, nonetheless made its three biggest political contributions in 2010 to Nebraska politicians, two of them Omaha Democrat members of the unicameral.

    Guess who’s on Tenet’s board?

    Too bad. I had hopes that Nebraska Watchdog would balance out the bias of the LJS and the OWH. It seems that instead they’re going to try to outdo them.

  • Clive

    I guess Nebraska watchdog can’t write a positive story about Bruning. His opponents are throwing more mud at him. Fischer and Stenberg are a disgrace.

  • over

    it is over for bruning. he is so sloppy and he should have been much smarter about his fundraising. good piece by watchdog

  • Patirck

    This story is a case in point that Bruning is untrustworthy, without any doubt. He’ll sell-out this entire state if the price was right. Bruning is a breed of hustler that’ll fit right in Washington. In other words, Bruning is the kind of representation that need to go, not get in.

    I may not like Stenberg at all but at least he doesn’t do business by opening his mouth and dropping to his knees.

  • John

    Maybe we see a parallel to Obama getting cash through different sources from China.

  • Dave Fall

    Good job Deena. Stick with it. Looks like the boys are selling their votes.

  • And Bob Kerrey is funding his campaign with $5.00 contributions from local folks in Nebraska.

  • Fred

    Once again we can see that Bruning is not the right choice for Nebraska. His dealings with Nelnet are a disgrace to his office as Attorney General. I shudder to think what kind of deals he would try if he is elected to the U.S. Senate and gets even more access to nationwide money.

  • Dennis Todd

    Do we have another Ben Nelson on our hands? Seems odd that ANOTHER senator is getting these deals done behind closed doors in order to fatten their wallet. What a disgrace to our “democracy”.

  • GH

    A poorly written hit piece. Every sentence basically ends in a question but is disguised as fact. Guess the new tactics are to attack every industry that turns down your fundraising request. Crazy, but last I checked these industries employ thousands of Nebraskans.

  • jWill

    Bruning is a complete sketchball, needs to get off twitter or better yet- out of the primary.

  • But what about the fact that NU – via the NU Foundation – got $22-30 MILLION dollars from NELNET?

    I’m curious why Nebraska Watchdog is “covering” NELNET and a Nebraska politician now when in 2010, the 1st CD’s Democratic Congressional Candidate, Ivy Harper, made NELNET & NU – and the unethical “Partnership” between those two – a centerpiece of her campaign.

    Why did a federal/Morrill Land Grant Act University engage in a menage a trois (NU/NELNET/Nebraska’s Congressional Delegation) with a predatory student loan company that was bilking the U.S. Government (aka the hard-working U.S. taxpayer) and accept ill-gotten gains from NELNET to the tune of tens of millions of dollars that emanated from the backs of vulnerable American students.

    NU received 880,000 thousand shares of NELNET stock and sold it at its absolute highest thereby taking in somewhere around $25-30 MILLION dollars.

    Deena, doesn’t that level of graft pretty much dwarf half-sies in a $750,000 thousand dollar stunning home at Big Sandy?

    Just curious.

    And I don’t think it’s okay to say, “Well, NU is not the Nebraska Attorney General.” No, but they have more power and NU is, in Fact, the state’s largest employer. One that should be acting as Stewards for the Citizens of the State.

    The Truth: The nearly $400 MILLION dollars that NELNET received from “unwarranted” U.S. Department of Education federal subsidies was spread around – by NELNET – all over the state but mostly to Lincoln and big-time to Nebraska’s politicians including Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and Senator Ben Nelson et al.

    And to uber-lobbyist Kim Robak.

    And to the Arena campaign.

    And to the Fill in the [Lincoln] blank.

    And to just about anyone else that NELNET wanted to impress.

    Most of Nebraska’s successful politicians – including Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler – pretend not to know NELNET’S nefarious “back story” and act disingenuous about accepting NELNET’S unearned and unwarranted FEDERAL money that NELNET received – with MAJOR help from NU – via what the two joined-at-the-hip institutions (NU & NELNET) disingenuously for years and years called a “loophole.”

    But again, the biggest beneficiary of NELNET’s ill-gotten gains was the University of Nebraska for whom Deena Winter’s husband – God Bless Him – works as a Journalism Professor and “recruiter” wherein he finds talented out-of-state students and encourages them to attend NU’s College of Journalism.

    Studies show that out-of-state & international students do/or are two things:

    1) well-off so they can easily pay nearly three times the tuition that Nebraskans pay;

    2) are not well-off and therefore, are forced to take out PRIVATE, PREDATORY student loans and then NU introduces said student to: you guessed it: NELNET.

    Perhaps Nebraska Watchdog needs to investigate the ENTIRE NELNET story which, sorry to say, Deena and Joe, will take you back to the University.

    Can you “Handle the Truth” as Jack Nicholson so famously shouted?

    NU, Nebraska politicians of both parties, Kim Robak, the City of Lincoln, A.G. Bruning, etc. – all people or institutions with power that should not have accepted NELNET money – did so.

    The only group that has not become “richer” through NELNET’s “schemes” to defraud the U.S. taxpayer is America’s loan-soaked Indentured Servants formerly known as students.

  • Jason

    So the big boys are selling and buying votes? How are you going to take money from someone you once prosecuted? I’m siding with Stenberg. Bruning has blown his rep if he ever even had one

  • Bill

    No one is throwing mud on Bruning, he renders the effort unnecessary by doing it himself. Allowing a financial incentive to decide his vote is dishonest and a disgrace to his position, period.

  • Brian T.Osborn

    But, but, but … doing all THAT would require real journalists! It’s a lot easier to just have the news mailed in by the political parties, candidates, and PACS. Doing actual investigative journalism is HARD WORK!

  • Rhett

    oh great lets replace a shady democrat ben nelson, with a shady rapublican Bruning, come on people lets send a good guy to Washington, lets send Stenberg!

  • Tabitha Smoak

    Wow. This gives me a real slimy feeling about even THINKING about voting for Bruning. I mean, what is he thinking? Why do these politicians all think we should allow them to make laws and they get to be the ones above it? I just don’t get it. Bruning’s like the rest of them — corrupt and replaceable!

  • bob

    Bruning is shady as can be. Hard to believe he’d be this blatant in selling his influence.

  • Clive

    Rhett- Yeah lets send a guy who has been bought by Jim DeMint. We need a Nebraska senator, not a 3rd senator from South Carolina.

  • Bobby X

    There’s so many issues with our state, and Bruning clearly represents the big-government, industry loyalist wing of the party. I’m sick of these guys. Stenberg and Fischer aren’t in the pockets of industry to exploit you! And look at where Stenberg’s money is from- Freedomworks and Club for Growth? Jim Demint is as good as it gets in the Senate. Make the right choice, cause it ain’t Bruning.

  • David H.

    “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.”

    ^ this right here says it all about Bruning. Sketchy and abusive of his powers right? I have no intention of helping send him to D.C.

  • Donald

    I agree with Dennis Todd… We dont need another Ben Nelson

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