By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN — Common Cause Nebraska says Omaha Sen. Brenda Council got off too easy after receiving a $500 fine for gambling with $63,000 in campaign money.
Jack Gould, issues chairman of the left-leaning government watchdog group, says people have made excuses for Council and pardoned her actions because she’s a popular lawmaker with a gambling problem.
“The focus has been on excuses rather than the issue itself,” he said. “The whole idea of campaign violations is a serious issue. When you’re talking about $63,000, there needs to be real concern.”
Gould questioned how Council would get off with a $500 fine for failing to report to the state that she spent about $63,000 in campaign donations on gambling, whereas a poor, drug-addicted person would likely get jail time for stealing $63,000.
“We’re not quite sure why that penalty was so minor,” he said. “I think we need to look at the consistency of the law. I think in this case there should be some explanation why we went with a $500 fine when there was $63,000 taken.”
Several of Council’s major donors told Nebraska Watchdog last week they would continue to stand by Council.
“Part of our concern is a lot of the major donors are saying everything’s OK,” Gould said. “In reality, it’s not OK.”
Attorney General Jon Bruning said Council withdrew about $63,000 in campaign funds at various casinos, primarily in Kansas, between January 2010 and July 2012, and repaid about $36,000 of it. She has repeatedly apologized for her error in judgment and vowed to repay all the money. She has not dropped out of her race for re-election to the Legislature.
Last week, 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. He indicated the two misdemeanors, combined with the public humiliation she would endure as an elected official, would be sufficient punishment.
“I don’t take Senator Council’s long, distinguished career lightly,” he said last week. Council is a former Omaha school board and City Council member.
Gould suggested there’s a double standard for elected officials and “important people.”
“There are a lot of people with addictions,” he said. “The law has been very hard on those people. We’re talking about $63,000. It’s money that was entrusted by the public. To say, ‘Well, it’s OK because it was an addiction’ – the pardoning isn’t consistent with the punishment that has been handed out by courts (in other cases).”
After the 2006 impeachment of University of Nebraska Regent David Hergert for falsely reporting the date of a campaign expenditure and obstructing government operations, state law was changed so criminal offenses are handled by the attorney general and civil offenses by the state Accountability & Disclosure Commission.
A&D Director Frank Daley said he and the attorney general decide whether the action rises to the level of a crime and who will be the lead agency.
“We agreed with their decision that they wanted to take on the matter as a criminal prosecution,” he said of the Council case. “The decision was that they ought to run with it, and we were OK with that.”
Daley’s office handled Hergert’s case, and he was fined $33,000 in penalties and late fees. In another case, former state Sen. Ray Mossey paid $14,000 in fines for using campaign money to pay an Internet dating service and tattoo parlor and failing to file two financial statements.
Gould questioned why the penalties were tougher when the A&D office handled such cases.
“When you pardon that kind of behavior, you’re weakening the whole system,” he said. “The public has been hurt, and the system has been hurt and campaign money is something that needs to be protected and not taken for granted.”
Bruning’s office has not yet responded to a request for comment.
Reported by Deena Winter, firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Deena on Twitter at @DeenaNEWatchdog.
Editor’s note: to subscribe to News Updates from Nebraska Watchdog at no cost, click here.