First, a quiz.
Which of the following can be legally purchased with campaign contributions in Nebraska?
A) Livestock (not a misprint).
B) Football tickets.
C) Airline tickets and hotel rooms.
D) Babysitting (again, not a misprint).
Answer: All of the above.
And four of those five routinely show up in state campaign reports.
Nebraska Watchdog has examined the reports of several dozen current and former members of the Nebraska Legislature who shelled out tens of thousands of dollars in campaign cash for trips, Husker football tickets, newspapers (big and small) and at least one steer over the last few years.
Again all legal purchases, according to the Nebraska Public Accountability and Disclosure Act. But at least one government watchdog group thinks the law needs to be changed.
“The money should be used for campaigning, period,” says Jack Gouldof Common Cause Nebraska.
“If the average guy gets something in the mail or on the internet and it says ‘the campaign needs your help, please make a contribution,’ he thinks (the money) is going to get the guy elected, buy an ad in the paper or on TV not to buy a cow at the county fair.”
The most recent cow in question, a $1,600 steer purchased last April by Sen. Ken Schilz, Ogallala,with the money going to the Cattleman’s Ball of Nebraska for its annual cancer research fund-raiser. All on the up and up, according to Frank Daley the man in charge of the Accountability and Disclosure Commission. Daley citing state law which says:
“Campaign funds may be used for “gifts of acknowledgement, (including flowers) and charitable contributions, except that gifts to any one natural person shall not exceed fifty dollars in any one calendar year.”
Campaign cash paid for a second similar purchase at last summer’s Chase County Fair, when then-Sen. Mark Christensen, R-Imperial, helped out a local 4-H group to the tune of $3,304.
It’s a similar kind of gift-giving which allows candidates to dole out some of the toughest tickets in town, seats to Nebraska football games.
Accountability and Disclosure rules make it clear: “Candidates may not make personal use of football tickets purchased with campaign funds.”
Four lawmakers took advantage of the Husker-handout last year:
- Sen. Tanya Cook, D-Omaha, $896.
- Sen. Heath Mello, D-Omaha, $896. “Donated to schools, churches.”
- Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, D-Omaha, $336. “Donated to OneWorld Community” Health Center.
- Sen. Jim Smith, R-Papillion, $1,270.
Common Cause’s Gould says a lawmaker once described the give-aways as “creative campaigning.” In an interview with Nebraska Watchdog, Gould called it something else.
Nebraska Watchdog: You think that’s vote-buying?
Jack Gould: Well, yes.
All this surfacing as lawmakers take yet another look at closing a hole in the state’s campaign cash rules and regulations. A hole so large it allowed former Sen. Brenda Council, D-Omaha, to misuse—gamble—$63,000 in political contributions, before she was caught, charged and convicted of two state misdemeanors and a federal felony.
The same kind of legal contributions which wind up in the coffers of hotels, airlines and several of the state’s newspapers.
Airlines, lodging and related fees:
- Sen. Cook: $3, 789. Meetings with National Conference of State Legislatures and President Obama’s Inauguration.
- Former Sen. Amanda McGill: $8,030. Pentagon briefing, White House reception, trade mission to China, exchange program in Turkey, and prison rehabilitation program in San Francisco.
- Sen. Mello: $3,890. Conferences.
- Sen. Nordquist: $3,026. Conferences.
- Sen. Smith: $648. ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) Conference.
As long as the travel makes the officeholder “more effective, more knowledgeable or better able to fulfill” their duties, all is well under the law.
Babysitting, which appears to be a far less used perk, can be paid from campaign funds when both the “candidate and his/her spouse attend a campaign event”
Newspapers get the go-ahead if they help obtain “public input or opinion.”
Nearly a dozen lawmakers shelled out a total of $4,200 for newspaper subscriptions including the Wall Street Journal, Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, Tilden Citizen-Meadow Grove News, Norfolk Daily News, Newman Grove Reporter, Kearney Hub, and Grand Island Independent.
Gould tells Nebraska Watchdog whenever he complains about this legal use of campaign cash he gets an earful—from senators, their staff, even some reporters.
“They say ‘(the lawmakers) are not paid very much, you have to give them some leeway.'”
In addition Gould says the folks who contribute thousands of dollars don’t care how campaign money is spent because their goal is to gain influence and access.
According to Gould, “Big money doesn’t care, the little guy he cares.”