- Associated Press - Sunday, June 26, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Somewhere in the pile of gifts Gov. Pete Ricketts received last year is a cape, a red clown’s nose, a rugby shirt and a Ronald Reagan candy jar.

The governor was showered with more than 400 gifts during his first year in office, ranging from baubles of little worth to five flight packages valued at more than $1,000 apiece, according to state disclosure records. The list includes Bibles, baseball caps, champagne, Omaha Steaks, Girl Scout cookies, and a hoody from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Ricketts, an avid biker, received a new jersey from the Nebraska Bicycling Alliance and a rugby shirt from the Wayne State University women’s team, a throwback to his days playing for the University of Chicago and the Chicago Griffins. Most gifts fall below the mandatory reporting threshold of $100, but Ricketts lists them all as his predecessors did.

“I’m grateful for the generosity of these numerous individuals,” Ricketts said.

The governor saw a surge in gifts during the Christmas season and slightly more than average in January 2015, the month he was inaugurated. On Aug. 19, the governor’s birthday, his office received a bottle of liquor and two Mutual of Omaha Bank shirts from the bank’s CEO.

Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said the governor keeps many of the books he receives in his library at the governor’s residence and donates others. He eats some of the food he receives and gives the rest to his staff, and shares the alcohol with friends and guests at the residence. The Ronald Reagan candy jar sits on his desk, not far from items he received on trade missions to Asia and Europe.

State law only requires elected officials to disclose price ranges, and no specific prices were listed in Ricketts’ filing.

Nebraska imposes a $50-a-month limit on gifts from lobbyists and their clients, but no limit on presents from others. Meals and drinks are exempt from the restriction in most cases.

Although they aren’t required to list gifts worth less than $100, recent governors have chosen to disclose all items in case they underestimate a gift’s value, said Frank Daley, the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission’s executive director. They’re also prohibited from accepting bribes - gifts given in exchange for a specific vote or action.

Nearby states have different policies on such gifts.

Neighboring Kansas imposes a $40-a-year limit on gifts from special interests, while Iowa bans all such gifts to public employees, officials and their families. South Dakota has no restrictions, and Wyoming prohibits gifts over $250, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Critics say the gifts serve no public purpose and put pressure on constituents to give when meeting with a governor or state senator. Lobbyists who buy meals and other goodies for elected officials are only doing so to help their clients, said Jack Gould, issues chairman of the group Common Cause Nebraska.

“This isn’t a monarchy where we give tribute to the king,” Gould said. “These are public servants. There’s no reason to provide gifts unless you’re trying to win favor in some way.”

Gage said most of the gifts Ricketts receives are “small and meant to be polite tokens of appreciation.

“The governor would never accept a gift intended to influence this office,” he said.

The kinds of gifts Ricketts received are similar to those given to former Gov. Dave Heineman when he was in office. Heineman reported food, books, T-shirts and novelty items, but he also received 25 golf outings with friend and business associates plus a $3,000 honorary membership at Champions Run Golf Club in Omaha.

Their gifts were less extravagant than some of the benefits showered on their predecessors.

Former Republican Gov. Mike 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.

Former Democratic Gov. Ben 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.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha introduced a resolution this year that would have banned lawmakers from eating meals bought by lobbyists when the Legislature is in session, but the proposal stalled. Chambers promised to introduce it next year as a bill, and railed against his colleagues for “sponging off the lobbyists.”

Gould said a gift limit of $5 or less would ease pressure on elected officials to accept expensive gestures.

“If the local Cub Scout group in Fremont wants to give the governor a hat, well, OK. That’s fine,” Gould said. “But when you start getting into bottles of whiskey and flights across the country, those are big gifts.”

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