- Associated Press - Thursday, February 19, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Political watchdog groups asked Nebraska lawmakers Thursday to pass a new campaign disclosure law that would make it harder for candidates to hide spending violations.

The bill presented to a legislative committee would require candidates and office-holders to submit end-of-year balance reports from their banks to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission. Current law allows them to self-report, so it’s harder to detect mistakes or fraud.

Some members of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee questioned the wisdom of passing laws based on a few bad actors. Sen. Joni Craighead of Omaha said the commission is “extremely thorough” in catching even small violations.

But Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue said she introduced the bill to protect the disclosure system as well as candidates, who could have accounts raided by campaign staff without realizing it. Crawford said the commission has no way of knowing whether a self-reported campaign account balance matches the actual money in the bank.

“We have an institutional system that is vulnerable,” she said.

The bill would have helped catch former state Sen. Brenda Council of Omaha sooner, before she misspent $63,000 in campaign money at casinos, said Jack Gould, issues chairman of Common Cause Nebraska.

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 revoked her law license.

Sen. John Murante of Gretna said he was wary of passing laws based on a few rule-breakers, and of creating a new burden for the vast majority of candidates who follow the law.

“If they’re willing to break campaign finance laws, they’re going to manipulate the bank statement that they turn in,” said Murante, the committee chairman.

The bill also would make clear that candidates can’t use their accounts for personal loans and would 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.

The bipartisan Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission endorsed the legislation, saying the new reporting requirement would reduce the amount of work needed to clear up intentional and accidental errors.

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

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The bill is LB166.


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