LINCOLN — The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday revived charges that two public power district employees used public resources to campaign against a board candidate.
The decision came in a case involving Rolland Skinner, then-general manager of Northwest Rural Public Power District, and Les Tlustos, the district’s consumer services director. Skinner is now retired.
They did not mention the name of Michael Van Buskirk, a wind energy proponent who was running for a spot on the power district board at the time.
But the advertisements attacked his key campaign issues and each of the three aired more than 70 times during October 2010.
Van Buskirk, who went on to win election, was the only candidate running on wind energy issues.
He filed a complaint with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission, the state agency that oversees campaign laws.
Van Buskirk alleged that the two violated a state law barring public officials from using public resources “for the purpose of campaigning” for or against a candidate or ballot measure.
In 2012, the Accountability and Disclosure Commission found that the two had violated the law and ordered each to pay a $2,000 civil penalty.
Skinner and Tlustos appealed to the Lincoln County District Court, which overturned the commission’s findings.
The district court reasoned that the radio ads did not amount to campaigning because they did not identify Van Buskirk by name, office or otherwise.
The court found instead that the ads were informational only.
Friday’s ruling, which came on an appeal filed by the commission, said the lower court’s definition of campaigning was too narrow.
The proper question is whether the ads were run “with the intent to influence public support for or against a particular candidate, ticket or measure,” the high court said.
Determining intent requires looking at more than the content of the radio ads, the court said.
It must include all relevant factors, such as whether the radio ads took a position for or against the issues central to Van Buskirk’s campaign, the timing and frequency of the ads and how the ads compared to the district’s prior public service announcements or ads.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to the district court to determine whether Skinner and Tlustos wanted to influence the campaign with the ads.
Jack Gould, with Common Cause Nebraska, said the ruling is important to having fair elections.
“If agencies of government are able to put out information with the intent of influencing an election, that’s a big deal,” he said, especially when they use public money to do so.
Terry Curtiss, the attorney representing Skinner and Tlustos, declined to comment because the case is ongoing. However, he said he expects the two will continue fighting in court.
Office: Common Cause Nebraska