- Associated Press - Sunday, July 27, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - For Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, every week is like the Christmas holidays.

Gifts pour into the governor, totaling 255 last year - an average of nearly five a week.

Golf memberships, steaks, candy and even a Bible from a man in Alabama.

While most gifts fell below the mandatory reporting threshold of $100, four were valued at more than $1,000. Heineman reports them all, even trinkets with little value.

“Nebraskans are polite, and it’s a way of showing their gratitude,” Heineman said.

The most expensive gift was a $3,000 honorary membership plus monthly dues at Champions Run Golf Club in Omaha, according to data from the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission requested by The Associated Press.

Other items included food, books, T-shirts, tickets to campaign fundraisers and 25 free golf outings with friends, business executives and lobbyists. Along with the gifts of candy and cookies was a feast of eight filet mignon Omaha Steaks and lobster tails from Maine Gov. Paul LePage.

Heineman said he eats the Snickers candy bars he receives but often shares the food with his staff. Some items from foreign dignitaries are on display at the governor’s residence. He reads some of the books, but donates many to local libraries. During an interview in his office last week, he displayed a Wahoo T-shirt and baseball cap from the town where he attended high school.

Heineman, an avid golfer, said he plays regularly with friends and at local tournaments to relax. He denied that his golf buddies receive special access, saying he doesn’t discuss politics on the green.

“If somebody wants to pay for a round of golf, I’m glad to do it - and I’ll fully disclose it,” Heineman said. “When we’re on the course, I’m focused on the golf. I’ve made it clear to everyone that I’m not going to talk business.”

Heineman said he pays his own way to University of Nebraska football, volleyball and basketball games, though he accepted a ticket to a Creighton University basketball game in January.

The governor said he makes a habit of disclosing all gifts so people can review them and judge for themselves. There are few limits on the value of gifts, though there is a $50 a month cap on gifts to elected officials by registered lobbyists and the companies they represent.

Government watchdogs question whether some givers are trying to gain influence.

Jack Gould, issues chairman for Common Cause Nebraska, said lobbyists and business executives can use gifts to gain exclusive access to the governor. The number of gifts offered would likely plummet if elected officials made it clear they wouldn’t accept them, Gould said.

“It really isn’t in the best interest of the public,” Gould said. “These are elected officials, not noblemen from some royal family. They’re here to serve, not get, from the public.”

Gould said Heineman’s gifts are generally less extravagant than those received by his two predecessors, Republican Mike Johanns and Democrat Ben Nelson.

Johanns faced criticism for accepting a 10-day trip to Hawaii with his wife in 2000, financed by an Omaha businessman. He came under scrutiny again after reporting that he paid only $875 for a private jet flight and 10-day Alaskan cruise with his wife on an Omaha businessman’s yacht in 2003.

Nelson reported pricey gifts from the University of Nebraska, including a $3,900 trip to the Orange Bowl for him and his wife, and weekend excursions to the exclusive Sandhills Golf Course near Mullen.

Food and beverages are exempt from gift limits. That prompted Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha to criticize his fellow lawmakers this year for accepting meals paid for by lobbyists.

Chambers quipped a senator could be bought for “a meat loaf sandwich and a chicken dinner.”

Among those who golfed regularly with Heineman last year was Walt Radcliffe, a longtime lobbyist and friend of the governor’s. Radcliffe said he played with Heineman long before he was elected governor. Like Heineman, Radcliffe said he golfs to relax and take his mind off his work.

“The only thing I ever talk about with the governor on the golf course is sports,” Radcliffe said. “It’s not the place to talk business.”

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