By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN — Fresh off news of a poll showing Deb Fischer with a double-digit lead in the race for the U.S. Senate, the state senator has become entangled in a controversy centered around an old rugged fence dating back to the 1930s.
That fence was the dividing line between Deb and Bruce Fischer’s Sunny Slope Ranch and their neighbors’ Snake Falls Ranch, owned at the time by Les and Betty Kime. Both ranches are in a wild and rugged portion of Cherry County in north-central Nebraska, near Nebraska’s largest waterfall and the Snake River, home to one of the nation’s best trout streams.
The fence between the ranches became a wedge in the neighbors’ relationship, as the Fischers grew increasingly determined to get a 104-acre parcel along the fence line that they’d maintained and run cattle on since the 1970s in a sort of gentleman’s agreement. According to court documents, the Fischers said the piece of land would give them a permanent route to federal grazing land and give both neighbors a clean block of land.
Even though the Kimes have since died and their heirs have sold the ranch, the neighborly dispute has come back to haunt Fischer during the waning weeks of her Republican campaign against Democrat Bob Kerrey, a former governor and U.S. senator. Kerrey today unleashed a TV ad and series of press conferences around the state to draw attention to the Fischers’ land dispute.
The tale of two neighbors is told through voluminous court files: After multiple attempts to get the Kimes to trade or sell the land in the 1980s and 1990s, the Fischers tried to get the Kimes to sign a quit claim deed in 1995 and then filed a lawsuit later that year, claiming the land was theirs thanks to a legal process called adverse possession — a way of acquiring property by occupying it for a long time.
That apparently didn’t go over well with the Kimes, who reported Bruce Fischer for trespassing on the land, according to a deposition in which Bruce Fischer said the sheriff served him with a summons in 1996.
A district judge sided with the Kimes in 1997, and in the aftermath, the Kimes refused to let the Fischers on their property, forcing the Fischers to run their cattle farther south to graze on their leased federal land in McKelvie National Forest.
Then in 1998, the Fischers asked that a fence committee be established by Cherry County to resolve the problem by surveying the land, determining ownership and moving the fence. The committee ruled in the Kimes’ favor, and the Kimes and Fischers were to split the cost of the new fence. When the Fischers were slow to pay their $2,600 bill, the county clerk threatened in 2002 to add it to their property tax bill as a special assessment.
They paid the bill before Deb Fischer decided to run for a higher office than the local school board. Two years later, in 2004, she was elected to the Legislature — defeating the man who had represented the Fischers throughout the legal dispute with the Kimes, attorney Warren Argenbright.
Democrats now allege Deb Fischer used her position as a lawmaker to settle some scores: In 2006, she co-sponsored a bill changing the way fence disputes are mediated.
Then in 2011, she introduced a bill that Democrats say was designed to derail an attempt by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to buy Snake Falls Ranch from the Kimes’ heirs.
Several months before she introduced the bill, news broke that the Snake Falls Sportsmen’s Club had been negotiating quietly to buy the 3,100-acre Snake Falls Ranch. The club had leased fishing and hunting rights on the Kimes’ ranch since it closed to the public more than 20 years prior. The club couldn’t afford to buy the whole ranch, so it sought help from the Game and Parks Commission, which agreed to try to get a $2.4 million grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust.
But neighboring property owners, including the Fischers, opposed the plan, saying opening up the area to the public could ruin it. Deb Fischer testified against the proposal at a Game and Parks informational meeting in October 2010, saying, “the locals are a little stirred up” by the plan, which she said wasn’t “handled properly.” She also attended another Game and Parks meeting about the Snake Falls Ranch sale in March 2011 in Valentine.
However, she didn’t mention any of that when she introduced a bill in January 2011 to transfer $7 million annually from the Environmental Trust Fund to a water fund for 11 years. During the public hearing on her bill, she said the money would be used for water projects, particularly the Platte River Recovery Program.
Democrats contend Fischer should have informed other lawmakers that she had a conflict of interest. Her bill would have cut the Environmental Trust Fund’s budget in half, making it less able to facilitate the sale of the Snake Falls Ranch, which would affect her property, which is also leased for hunting and fishing. Her U.S. Senate financial disclosure form indicates she earns between $15,000 and $50,000 annually from leasing land adjacent to Snake Falls Ranch.
In the end, a compromise was reached that didn’t cut as much as Fischer proposed her measure. Lawmakers agreed to legislation that reduced the fund’s budget by about $3 million.
Landowners sued to stop the deal, and ultimately the sportsman’s club backed away from partnering with the state and bought the ranch on its own.
In the wake of news about the Fischers’ lawsuit against the Kimes, Democrats have pounced on the issue, holding news conferences, sending out news releases and filing a complaint with the state Accountability & Disclosure Commission, accusing Deb Fischer of failing to file a conflict of interest statement in 2011.
Today, Kerrey held a press conference to decry Fischers’ treatment of their neighbors, saying the Kimes spent $40,000 on legal fees defending their land. The Kerrey campaign launched a website called fischerlandgrab.com, which alleges the fence between the Fischers and Kimes was cut in the mid-1990s, and that the sheriff got involved when cattle wandered onto Fischers’ land and the Fischers refused to let their neighbors come get the cattle.
“I believe this is a story that Nebraskans need to hear,” Kerrey said. “State Senator Fischer’s neighbors allowed her to use their land, and rather than saying thank you, she went to court and attempted to take that land away from the Kimes.”
The chairman-elect of the state Democratic Party, Vince Powers, called Fischer’s failure to disclose her personal interest in the ranch sale “shocking.” And on Friday, a former senator and two current senators, all Democrats, were critical of Fischer.
“It’s disappointing that Deb Fischer didn’t disclose to me and our other legislative colleagues her personal and financial stake in Snake Falls when she introduced LB229,” Omaha state Sen. Heath Mello said in a news release put out by the Kerrey campaign Friday. “Her years of effort in trying to acquire the property should have been disclosed as we worked on the legislation. If she had, the outcome of LB229 may have been dramatically different.”
Last week, Deb Fischer called the Democrats’ ethics complaint a “partisan, political stunt” during a radio interview.
“There was no conflict,” she said on KFAB.
She also said she attended the October 2010 Game and Parks Commission meeting at the request of the Cherry County Board of Commissioners, which opposed the sale, and was open about being a neighboring landowner.
Deb Fischer didn’t respond to a request for comment, but the campaign put out a statement today calling Kerrey’s latest TV ad a “ transparent act of desperation.”
“It’s truly pathetic that Bob Kerrey is now resorting to character assassination to revive his flailing campaign,” said Fischer campaign spokesman Daniel Keylin. ”He’s revealing the disturbing depths he’ll stoop to in order to win.”
Keylin said the Fischers’ lawyer advised them to “clarify the land boundaries through the legal system” before selling a parcel of land.
“Mr. Kerrey’s reckless disregard for the truth and his desperate personal attacks are the epitome of what’s wrong with Washington,” Keylin said. “Rather than focus on the issues or his record, Mr. Kerrey is turning to the politics of personal destruction. Mr. Kerrey should be ashamed of himself for bringing gutter politics to Nebraska. ”
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