Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Tax Dollars Fueling Republican Campaigns

by Kyle Michaelis
Some interesting questions are swirling around the offices of State Treasurer Ron Ross and Attorney General Jon Bruning, both of whom appear to have improperly spent tax-payers' money laying the groundwork for their 2006 campaigns.

Ross stands so-charged by fellow Republican and primary challenger Shane Osborn, having taken a page from the Don Stenberg/Lorelee Byrd-playbook plastering his face all over TV screens under the guise of legitimate state business:
State Treasurer Ron Ross is spending roughly $200,000 in state funds on television ads and a public-relations consultant. He says it could result in a big payoff for Nebraskans.

His opponent in the race for state treasurer, Shane Osborn, says Ross may actually be seeking another sort of payoff: A boost to his election campaign.

Ross on Tuesday announced a statewide initiative to educate business and organizations about the state’s unclaimed property law....

His plan includes television ads in which he explains the law, a statewide sweep of seminars for businesses and auditing of businesses suspected of illegally holding unclaimed property....

Osborn said the timing of the promotional campaign is not a coincidence. Ross has until the end of the year to lend his name and face to the promotional campaign paid for with money from the unclaimed property fund.

After former State Treasurer Lorelee Byrd used her name and picture in newspaper and television advertising of unclaimed property, the Legislature passed a law that prohibits some elected leaders from using their names on promotional material paid for with state funds during an election year.

The first round of the current slate of TV ads started Nov. 1. Different ads, also featuring Ross, will begin later this month....

Ross was appointed in 2004 by then-Gov. Mike Johanns to replace Byrd, who left amid an investigation into financial irregularities in her office. He said the unclaimed property promotion is not an effort to raise his public profile and suggested it could actually hurt his election campaign....

The first two rounds of ads will cost a total of about $150,000. Another $20,000 will go to a Lincoln public relations firm, Parsons Public Relations.

Its president, Dan Parsons, has worked as a political consultant for former Attorney General Don Stenberg, who is now a candidate for U.S. Senate. Parsons served as Stenberg’s spokesman when he was attorney general.

Ross said Parsons is not working on his election campaign.

That all smells fishy as hell - the timing, the involvement of Parsons - particularly in light of the suspicious spending of Ross' predecessor that followed an all-too-familiar pattern.

But, the stink doesn't stop at the door to the Treasurer's office. AG Bruning, who's plastered himself all over Nebraska TV with state funds every chance he could get since taking office, has added to the reek with troubling revelations about his hiring a well-known Republican campaign manager to his staff:
A so-called "critical" state job once held by former Gov. Mike Johanns' campaign manager has been vacant since she left six months ago to work on another Republican political campaign - raising questions about need for the position.

"It would make you wonder how vital the position was, wouldn't it?" said state Sen. Don Pederson about the job once held by Vicki Powell in the office of Republican Attorney General Jon Bruning.

Powell, who twice served as Johanns' campaign manager, was hired Feb. 9 as Bruning's "senior citizen outreach coordinator," a post he said he still considers critical.

Powell left the $59,000-a-year job on May 12 to become U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne's gubernatorial campaign manager. She served as Johanns' campaign manager in both 1998 and 2002.

Her office was located across the hall from Bruning's in the Capitol, leading some to question whether her hire was politically motivated.

At the time, Bruning was rumored to be considering a run for governor or U.S. Senate....

Bruning was so sensitive about the questions over Powell's hiring that he announced on the same day as his budget hearing before the Legislature's Appropriations Committee that he was going to seek re-election and not run for a different office.

That didn't stop lawmakers from asking Bruning about Powell at the March hearing.

Pederson, chairman of the committee, quizzed Bruning on why he hired Powell, who is not an attorney, to replace an attorney in the fraud division who had left.

Pederson said Wednesday he didn't think the position was necessary, especially given that other private groups are doing the same type of fraud prevention work.

"I said at the time that Vicki Powell's only history had been running campaigns, not certainly getting into something that she knew nothing about," Pederson said.

Talk about keeping it in the family. Having a woman of Powell's experience on-hand was undoubtedly a shrewd political move by the ambitious Bruning, but securing her services with tax-payers' money - in what may well have been an unnecessary position for which she was not even qualified - is the sort of thing that sends a shiver down the back of any concerned citizens' spine.

Much is made of the Republican culture of corruption that has engulfed Washington, D.C. - particularly in the halls of Tom DeLay's Congress - but it's clear there's plenty in our own statehouse that demands investigation and the attention of Nebraska voters.

Controlling all the levers of state government has gone to Nebraska Republicans' heads. They've lost any sense of accountability to voters and seem willing to engage in whatever unethical conduct they think they can get away with...and, let me just say, with the state of Nebraska media being so unquestioning and even uninformed, these folks know they can get away with a lot.

It's time for change. Voters will either realize that soon, or they will pay for it later. And pay. And pay. And pay.


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