By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. — A state senator is accused of using $63,000 in campaign funds to gamble, making nearly 200 cash transactions at casinos.
Sen. Brenda Council, D-Omaha, was charged Wednesday with two misdemeanor counts of abusing public records.
Council agreed to plead guilty Tuesday in Lancaster County District Court. The misdemeanors carry a maximum penalty of six months imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.
Council is running for a second term representing north Omaha in the Legislature against former Sen. Ernie Chambers, the state’s longest-serving lawmaker. Chambers was term-limited out of his seat but is now allowed to run again after sitting out for four years.
Earlier this year, the Attorney General’s Office received information from law enforcement that Council was unlawfully using campaign money. Subpoenaed bank and casino records showed she withdrew about $63,000 in campaign funds at various casinos, primarily in Kansas, between January 2010 and July 2012, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning said. Failing to disclose that on the campaign finance reports she filed during that time is a violation of state campaign finance law.
Bruning said she deposited — or repaid — about $36,000 over the 2 1/2 years investigators reviewed. Bruning said casino records indicated she used the money to play slots and table games.
Council released a statement tonight saying she made an error in judgment by borrowing money from her campaign and failing to report that and repay the money. She said she takes full responsibility for the error.
“There was no malicious intent on my part,” she said. “I borrowed the money with every intention to pay it back and have paid back the bulk of the money I borrowed. I am in the process of paying back the remaining amount. It will all be paid back.”
She indicated she will continue to run for re-election but nothing is final. Her close friend and advisor, Omaha Councilman Ben Gray, said he hopes she stays in the race.
Bruning said Council could have been charged with a felony, but the penalty likely would be the same and more time and tax dollars would be required to pursue felony charges.
“We considered that. We certainly discussed that,” he said. “That’s part of the discretion we as prosecutors have.”
He said she could have been charged with 100 misdemeanors, but that wouldn’t change the penalty.
“It’s all part of the same offense,” he said.
Bruning said officials suspected Council would plead guilty to misdemeanor charges, and she will do so next week. Prosecutors will not recommend a penalty and will not seek jail time, he said.
“Senator Council needs help with what seems to be a gambling addiction,” Bruning said during a news conference Wednesday. “I would say she was disappointed in herself. She was very contrite. She was willing to work with us.”
He said charging her as a senator would be a “very public and difficult thing for her to deal with” and he felt the misdemeanor charges were “appropriate and fair.”
“I don’t take Senator Council’s long, distinguished career lightly,” he said. Council is a former Omaha school board and city council member.
Council pleaded guilty to trespassing at a Council Bluffs casino after voluntarily banning herself from Iowa casinos in 2005.
Bruning said he did not ask Council to resign and doesn’t believe the misdemeanors would prevent Council from continuing to run for the Legislature or hold the office.
“We’ve tried very hard to not have anything to do with the electoral side of this,” said Bruning, a Republican.
Asked why the charges were filed two months before the election, Bruning said his office has been aware of the situation for several months and didn’t feel it was appropriate to wait until after the election.
“We didn’t feel we had any choice,” he said.
Asked whether it’s possible another law enforcement agency could file theft charges against Council, Bruning said he didn’t know.
“Our intent is to have the matter completed with these two charges,” he said.
Investigators only subpoenaed records dating back to 2010, but Bruning said clearly there’s a pattern of behavior and much more money could have been misused.
Council said she’s getting professional treatment for a gambling addiction.
“I will continue to meet and talk with members of the 11th District in my campaign for re-election,” she said. “I have always and will continue to do what is in the best interest of my community, my district and my state.”
But she added, “I also will not give up or quit fighting for the issues that are truly important to North Omaha – good jobs, strong schools, safe neighborhoods and increased investments in our community.”
Contact Deena Winter at email@example.com. Follow Deena on Twitter at @DeenaNEWatchdog.
Editor’s note: To subscribe to News Updates from Nebraska Watchdog at no cost, click here.