Monday, June 13, 2005

World-Herald Singling-Out Nelson for Scorn?

by Kyle Michaelis
Today, in a report on the wealth of Nebraska's and Iowa's congressional delegations, the World-Herald led with Democrat Ben Nelson's being the richest member. This in itself is not a bad thing at all, except it isn't necessarily accurate:
Sen. Ben Nelson retains his title as the richest Midlands-area lawmaker through his investments in stocks, bonds, annuities and Berkshire Hathaway stock, according to new personal financial disclosure reports...

Nelson, a former Nebraska governor, lawyer and insurance executive, reported assets valued between $3.9 million and $12.9 million, down a bit from the previous year.

He held at least $1.5 million of stock in Berkshire Hathaway, Omaha investor Warren Buffett's company. Nelson's largest asset apparently was U.S. Treasury notes worth $1 million to $5 million.

Lawmakers are required to report assets only within a range of values, so the disclosures are imprecise. They tell where lawmakers are invested but do not include their homes.

Nelson's Nebraska colleague, Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, listed assets worth $2.2 million to $7.7 million, an increase from the previous year.

A former investment banker, Hagel's largest asset remains with his former company, Omaha-based McCarthy Group Inc., where he is invested in stocks and money market funds worth $1.5 million to $5.5 million.

Another Nebraskan in the millionaire group is former Cornhuskers football coach Tom Osborne, who reported assets between $2.8 million and $12 million.

As anyone can see, it's entirely possible that both Osborne and Hagel are actualy worth more than Nelson, with their upper limits of $12 and $7.7 million, respectively, well above Nelson's lower-limit of $3.9 million. Of course, none of this should matter much but it may demonstrate a trend in recent OWH coverage to single Nelson out undeservedly for harsher scrutiny than his fellows. Here it's just a matter of wealth, which means nothing to some but has a definite distancing effect on low-income voters. The far more suspect example actually occurred in this April 27th article by the same reporter, Jake Thompson:
Three years ago, hunting buddies Ben Nelson and Phil Gramm flew to Wyoming to talk to the Big Horn Canyon Ranch Hunting Club, which paid their way and helped them blast away at some pheasants.

The trip that Nebraska's Democratic senator took with the former Texas Republican senator is one of several dozen privately financed trips taken by Midlands lawmakers since 2000, according to a report released Tuesday.

The report, by watchdog group, provides details of 5,410 privately financed trips that 600 members of Congress have taken in the past five years.

It was released at a time when such excursions are under increased scrutiny because of ethics concerns related to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who may have taken trips paid for by lobbyists, a violation of House rules.

There is no suggestion that lobbyists paid for any of the privately financed trips taken by Midlands lawmakers. But groups paying for the congressional trips don't have to disclose where the money comes from, which concerns those who track money in politics.

"It's a long-held practice in Washington that smells funnier the closer you look at it," said Steve Weiss, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics.

Midlands lawmakers and their spokesmen said their policy decisions are not affected by the travel. Generally, they said, the trips provide them with opportunities to learn and listen and are appropriate...

Among Midlands lawmakers, (Sen. Chuck) Hagel took the most privately financed trips, 39 in all, at a cost of $36,521, according to the report...

Nelson, who took 13 trips costing $32,770, including the one to Wyoming during which he hunted pheasants, is the 2005 co-chairman of the Congressional Sportsman's Caucus, his spokesman said. The group promotes hunting, fishing and conservation nationwide.

"These meetings provide an opportunity to listen and discuss the issues openly, free of political pressure and posturing," Nelson spokesman David DiMartino said. "These meetings are fully disclosed and transparent."

(Tom) Osborne, who accepted four privately paid trips at a cost of $16,269, said he has avoided taking costly overseas travel paid by nonprofits, organizations or educational groups....

(Lee) Terry accepted five trips from groups paying $19,185, three of which were to Las Vegas for meetings of broadcast groups. Terry is on the House Commerce Committee overseeing broadcast matters.

Hagel spent more money on more of these questionable trips, yet Nelson's trips were made the centerpiece of the article. Meanwhile, both Osborne and Terry spent more $$$ per trip than the state's lone Democrat in D.C., one of them spending that time in the self-proclaimed sin capital of America, Las Vegas. Still, Nelson was the centerpiece.

Maybe it's nothing. Maybe it's just a coincidence that this reporting goes out of its way to serve the World-Herald's right-wing agenda, first by unreasonably targeting Nelson, who already stands alone, for a near-universal offense and then by exaggerating (even slightly) his wealth in respect to other Nebraska lawmakers. I don't know if there's any real bias here. I just think, knowing the World-Herald's partisan leanings, we need to be on the look-out for this sort of thing that just doesn't quite pass the smell test.

In large part, that's why we're here. To watch. To keep a record. I hope they know we're watching. I hope they know someone's out there ready to hold them accountable. There's not a new sheriff in town...not yet...but there might just be a new traffic cop. Okay...maybe more like a hall monitor at the local high school. But, hey, change has to start somewhere.


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