- Associated Press - Sunday, February 15, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Politicians who use campaign money illegally could have a harder time hiding their violations under a bill that will go before Nebraska lawmakers this week.

The measure would change a rule that allows candidates and office-holders to self-report the amount of money in their campaign accounts.

Supporters say the bill might have helped officials catch former state Sen. Brenda Council earlier, before she gambled away $63,000 in campaign money. It’s set for a hearing Thursday before the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.

Council, of Omaha, was sentenced to three years of criminal probation in 2013 and fined $500 after pleading guilty to a federal wire fraud charge. She also was fined $500 after pleading guilty to two state misdemeanor charges that she filed false campaign finance reports, and the Nebraska Supreme Court removed her law license.

The bill would require candidates to file end-of-year campaign bank account balances with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission. Doing so would give state investigators the chance to compare each candidate’s bank account with the amount that was self-reported.

“Right now, there’s no way to cross-check,” said Jack Gould, issues chairman for Common Cause Nebraska. “The totals are whatever the senators say they are.”

The bill also would make clear that candidates can’t use their accounts for personal loans, and increase the maximum fine for campaign and ethics violations from $2,000 to $5,000.

In addition, the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission would have the power to order restitution payments from candidates and office-holders. Under current law, commission members can only impose the $2,000 fine even if government employees use tens of thousands of dollars in public resources.

Gould pointed to the 2005 case of former state Sen. Ray Mossey of Omaha, who agreed to pay more than $14,000 in fines after he used campaign money at Internet dating service and a tattoo parlor. In 1993, a campaign treasurer for former state Sen. Scott Moore took out a bank loan and placed the money in her personal account. She was later charged with felony theft and placed in a pretrial diversion program.

Each violation would have been caught earlier if senators had to back up their reports with a bank statement, Gould said.

“All of this was found by outsiders, yet we have limits on disclosure that lets all kinds of cash float around,” Gould said. “This will keep happening again and again and again unless we have some way of policing it.”

The commission has endorsed the legislation, saying the new reporting requirement would reduce the amount of work needed to clear up intentional and accidental errors.

“It would be very helpful,” said Frank Daley, the commission’s executive director. “Obviously, if we’re receiving campaign statements, we want them to be accurate. I think maybe there’s some concern among office-holders and candidates that this is a ‘gotcha’-type situation, and that’s really not the point.”

Daley said most of the reporting errors his office sees are innocent mistakes, but they can build up over time.

“Our guys would much rather go through a year’s worth of records to find a discrepancy than four, or eight, or 12,” he said. “It’s easier to do annually, because you have fewer records to go through. This is one of those common-sense tools that would assist us in doing our job.”

Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue said she introduced the bill to ensure that actual campaign spending matches what candidates and elected officials report to the state.

Crawford said the bill could also make it easier for candidates to dissolve their campaigns. Doing so requires them to account for all of the money they’ve received before donating it to another campaign or charity. If money isn’t shown due to a mistake from years ago, the campaigns have to dig through old records to account for it.

A similar measure by Sen. Ernie Chambers stalled last year, although no one testified against it.

Some senators raised concerns that it could force the disclosure of bank account numbers and other sensitive information. Crawford said this year’s legislation would allow candidates to submit bank reports without that information. The statements would not be considered public records.


The bill is LB166

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