Midlands Voices: Hole in law hides gambling, tattoos, more

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  • Gavin Geis

It has been nearly three years since the Legislature was faced with an actual case of fraud.

In 2012, it was revealed that then-State Sen. Brenda Council had gambled away $63,000 in campaign funds.

Other state senators felt “sorry” for Council’s gambling addiction. They saw no need for censure or talk of impeachment. The lack of legislative action encouraged large donors to make more contributions to Council’s campaign.

Council later pleaded guilty to a federal wire fraud charge and misdemeanor state charges.

This was not the first such case in the Nebraska Legislature.

In 2006, then-Sen. Ray Mossey was unable to explain the disappearance of $7,442.98 from his campaign account.

An investigation by the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission (NADC) revealed some of the campaign funds were spent on a dating service and a tattoo parlor. The commission fined him $2,000 on each of seven campaign finance violations.

In 1993, Margaret Reynolds, then-Sen. Scott Moore’s campaign treasurer, took out a bank loan for Moore’s re-election campaign. After Moore discovered the discrepancy, Reynolds was charged with felony theft for allegedly diverting the funds to her personal account. She resigned, paid restitution and entered a pretrial diversion program.

All three of these cases went undetected by the NADC for one reason — because there was no way to cross-check the campaign balances reported by the senators with their actual campaign bank balances. All three cases had to be brought to authorities’ attention by someone else.

At any given time, the NADC is tracking as many as 535 individual candidates, using only two auditors and two clerks.

This is a huge job for only a handful of staffers. Unless they are given proper tools, it is nearly impossible to detect fraudulent withdrawals from campaign accounts.

But what about imaginary fraud?

Once again this year, the Legislature is focused on the voter ID issue. Yet there has never been a single felony conviction for voter fraud.

It is, however, both fashionable and safe for a senator to pontificate about his serious concern regarding this nonexistent fraud. Law and order will capture the headlines as the Legislature spends hours voicing the need to complicate the voting process that will inevitably disenfranchise many Nebraskans. Where are the concrete examples?

On the second day of this year’s legislative session, Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue introduced Legislative Bill 166 to deal with an actual problem in campaign accounting.

The bill would require a once- a-year, verifiable bank statement for all campaign accounts. It would also make it illegal to provide personal loans from campaign funds.

The Legislature’s Government Committee, which has killed similar bills in 2013 and 2014, has scheduled a hearing on LB 166 for Feb. 19. Some members of the committee already have stated there is no need for such disclosure.

Current candidates and elected officials are only required to disclose campaign contributions and expenditures of over $250. Large amounts of cash continue to be invisible to the public.

A quick look at 2013 campaign finance filings will show unexplained personal campaign fund “reimbursements” for as much as $8,091 and $14,000.

Were these expenses legitimate, or did some of that money go for tattoos or gambling?

If the Legislature doesn’t take action, we’ll never know. Fraud will remain imaginary as long as it cannot be verified.