Questions arise after Gov. Ricketts uses his own money to add adviser to his office

LINCOLN — Jessica Moenning, a longtime political operative of Gov. Pete Ricketts, is staying on as a privately paid senior adviser.

The arrangement has prompted questions about a private employee, paid out of the governor’s own pocket, being involved in public policies and using, at least for a time, publicly funded office space at the State Capitol.

“It does not feel right to me,” said John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Certainly, the governor can consult with anyone they want. But this seems to be going beyond asking your old friends who have jobs elsewhere, ‘Is this a good idea?’ ”

Jack Gould of Common Cause Nebraska said a privately paid employee most likely would be accountable to the person who paid them — not to the public — and would most likely not be covered by laws governing ethical issues involving state officials.

“It may sound good that you’re not spending tax dollars, but you’re giving up accountability,” Gould said. “It’s wrong.”

Ricketts and Moenning, a former executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party who has worked on the new governor’s political campaigns since 2006, defended the arrangement Tuesday as appropriate and accountable.

“Jessica is accountable directly to me, and I am accountable to the voters of Nebraska,” Ricketts said.

Because this is a novel work arrangement, he said, he has sought advice from the state political accountability commission on how to structure Moenning’s job and comply with ethics laws.

“It is new, and we want to be transparent,” Ricketts said.

He said Moenning’s position fit with his pledge to run state government differently. Keeping her on his private payroll, rather than the state’s, would allow her to better focus on long-term strategies and setting up advisory committees to provide broader input on policy decisions, he said.

“I need someone who can really be divorced from the day-to-day and think big picture and not get caught up in the urgent things that happen every day,” Ricketts said.

He declined to say what Moenning would be paid.

Former campaign workers often get government jobs when their candidate wins. For instance, Carlos Castillo, who ran former Gov. Dave Heineman’s campaigns, was kept on to run the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services.

But keeping on a campaign aide in a private position — one that directly affects public policy — is a different approach. It comes from a governor who has already broken the state government mold to some extent by using privately financed executive search firms to help pick state agency directors.

He has also created two new positions in the Governor’s Office — a chief operating officer and a human resources specialist — that Ricketts said were inspired by his business experience.

The new positions are partly responsible for a 20 percent increase in the Governor’s Office budget request. But Ricketts rejected the idea he was paying Moenning personally to avoid raising his budget request further. Other state agencies are being asked to live with a 3 percent spending increase.

Moenning said she was regularly at the State Capitol earlier this month while writing the State of the State address so she could work with governor’s office staffers. The speech has been traditionally handled by a state-paid spokesperson for the governor. But Moenning said she never had a personal office, and never used state computers or phones.

She now has a private office about a block from the Capitol. She said she has sat in on some governor’s staff meetings and will attend future meetings if the governor wants her input.

Ricketts said Moenning will focus on big-picture planning, strategic communications and setting up citizens advisory councils on issues such as manufacturing, corrections and social services.

Moenning said she is excited to continue working for Ricketts and believes in his desire to get diverse, outside input from a wide range of people.

“His focus on how we treat people and how we take care of people matters greatly to me,” she said. “He likes hearing from real people. I like that about his style.”

Moenning ran Ricketts’ unsuccessful 2006 campaign for U.S. Senate and served as a paid campaign aide/consultant for the past two years during his campaign for governor.

She also has worked as a communications consultant for a pro-Keystone XL pipeline group, Nebraskans for Jobs and Energy Independence, and was a consultant, paid and unpaid, for a handful of state legislative campaigns last year.

Moenning said she plans to continue her work with the pro-pipeline group and a couple of other nonprofit clients. She recently ended her relationship with a Des Moines public relations/affairs firm, the Ls2 Group.

Gould and Hibbing expressed concerns about the participation in public affairs of someone on a private payroll.

“When you start paying someone with private money, the question is, who are they responsible to?” Gould said. “It should be ‘by the people and for the people.’”

Hibbing said Moenning’s job raises questions about chain of command and who calls the shots: Moenning or the governor’s chief of staff, who is responsible for dealing with management and policy issues.

“These are public officials, no matter how much Ricketts may love the private sector,” he said.

State Sen. Bob Krist, who employed Moenning as a campaign director, said he sees nothing wrong with the arrangement. He said it will result in better advice for the governor, an added conduit for information for state senators and a cost savings for taxpayers.

Frank Daley, executive director of the State Accountability and Disclosure Commission, said the Ricketts administration contacted him Jan. 16 about several issues surrounding a privately paid aide, including the ethics of the aide using state office space and state-funded transportation.

Daley said there is nothing wrong with a governor hiring a private consultant with state money. But using a private consultant who is paid with private money raises different questions, he said.

A state-paid consultant can certainly use a state office, but what about a consultant hired personally by the governor?

Daley said he advised the administration to check with state agencies about the use of state vehicles and state plane and to seek a formal opinion from his office on the use of office space.

Bo Bothelo, a lawyer with the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services, said that while state vehicles cannot be used for personal use, a private person can ride along if the vehicle is being used for a state purpose.

Daley acknowledged that he advised the Ricketts administration that Moenning should not be paid with political campaign funds, which must be spent only for campaign expenses.

Moenning filed as a lobbyist in 2005 and 2006 while running the state GOP, as well as in the second quarter of 2013 while working for the pro-Keystone group.

She said she would not be a lobbyist in her new role.

Her husband, Josh Moenning, is a former aide to U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and worked on Ricketts’ campaign for governor. He now heads a group seeking to persuade the state to complete a four-lane expressway to Norfolk. He is continuing to live in Norfolk, where he serves on the City Council.

Read more at the Omaha World Herald.

See More: Ethics