By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN – Two years ago, a Seward County prosecutor was asked by Lincoln officials to investigate a complaint that Lincoln City Councilman Gene Carroll was driving a vehicle with Colorado license plates and see whether he was in violation of the city code on licensing, registering and paying taxes on vehicles.
Seward County Attorney Wendy Elston did so, and concluded that Carroll hadn’t broken the law because he was driving a company car. She told Lincoln city officials if they wanted her to look into whether the company was violating any law, she would have to start charging for her time, but city officials did not ask her to pursue the case.
Elston told Nebraska Watchdog that in late 2011, she received a phone call from Lincoln City Attorney Rod Confer asking if she would act as a special prosecutor in the case because the person under investigation was a city councilman. She agreed and was appointed a special city prosecutor. She received investigative reports that began in the Lincoln Police Department but were transferred to a automobile fraud unit at the Nebraska Highway Patrol due to the potential conflict of interest.
Lincoln’s city code says vehicle owners are responsible for licensing, registering and paying taxes on vehicles. But the owner of the vehicle Carroll was driving was the Colorado-based cell phone company he works for, Elston said. The company would be responsible for paying the vehicle taxes in the principle place of business, which is not defined in the code.
“You could argue his home is his place of business,” Elston said of Carroll, who travels frequently as a site acquisition manager for NE Colorado Cellular Inc. Carroll said the company is based in Colorado and operates in five states.
Elston did her investigation pro bono, and told Lincoln city officials if they wanted her to investigate further, she would be happy to do so, but would have to begin charging the city of Lincoln for her time.
“I did spend a lot of time on it and I did not charge the city of Lincoln,” she said. “I just did it as a professional courtesy.”
City code allows the city of Lincoln to sue those who violate the law, but there’s an 18-month statute of limitations, Elston said, so not much money would be at stake. She told the Lincoln city attorney in a letter that he would need to decide whether it would be “taxpayer-wise” to pursue the case. She said she never heard back from the city prosecutor.
Elston said it was her understanding that “another city council member” filed the complaint against Carroll that launched the investigation. Carroll’s company car is often parked in the underground parking garage at city hall and plainly visible to other council members and city employees.
Carroll told Nebraska Watchdog he knows who filed the “anonymous complaint” against him, but he declined to say who.
Carroll’s company car is no longer licensed in Colorado, however. Carroll said the plates were changed before the complaint was lodged.
Why did they change the plates?
“It was a company decision,” he said. “We did that not just here but across the state.”
He suspects the complaint about his license plates was politically motivated.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Nobody came and asked me. They just filed a complaint, which tells me that their intention was to cause me problems. … They’re trying to cause trouble for me during my re-election.”
Carroll is one of three council members up for election in the April primary and May general city election.
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