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Treasurer's legal troubles trigger talk of new Lancaster County expense policy
 Nancy Hicks  / 

Lancaster County Treasurer Andy Stebbing was not in the room, and no one said his name, but his presence was unmistakable as county commissioners considered a new policy Thursday for handling expense claims from elected county officials.

In the future, the commissioners themselves would look at and approve expense claims from the county's eight elected officials: the sheriff, county attorney, public defender, county engineer, assessor, clerk, treasurer and clerk of the district court.

Those claims would be available online as part of the agenda for the commission's weekly staff meeting, so anyone with a computer can look at them, based on the proposed policy.

The issue arose after commissioners became aware that Stebbing was reimbursed for mileage for at least 10 trips to the Lincoln Auto Auction in Waverly over the past two years.

Stebbing said he went on official county business, because the many dealers who attend the auction are also big users of the treasurer's motor vehicle offices and services.

But Stebbing has also been charged with five felonies stemming from cars he purchased at the auction.

No one outside Stebbing’s office approves his mileage forms before they are paid under current County Board policy. 

For now, department heads approve expense claims from their employees, and Kerry Eagan, the County Board’s chief administrative officer, approves expense requests from department heads. But no one reviews expense requests of the eight separately elected county officials.

Under the proposed policy, those requests would go through Eagan before moving to the commissioners. Egan said he’s not an auditor, and it would be more like a “sniff test from me.”

Commission Chairman Todd Wiltgen said the proposal addresses a fundamental issue: “I don’t care who you work for or what you do, you should not sign your own expense reports.”

A former U.S. congressman from Illinois, Aaron Schock, is being prosecuted for falsifying expenses, Wiltgen said. "We are dealing with taxpayer money. We need to do a better job of accounting for it." 

Commissioners could still talk to the elected official before the meeting or during the open meeting if they have questions about specific expenses, he said.

The information, attached electronically to the agenda, would be more readily available to the public, be more transparent and hopefully deter any abuses in the process, Wiltgen said.

When he worked as a staff member in Congress “all my expense reports were readily available to the public.” Wiltgen said he rarely claimed reimbursement, and when he did, he knew it was a public record.

Commissioner Jennifer Brinkman said she understood the concern because “we have an issue now.” But she worried it might be an overreaction.

“I don’t have a different solution. But it feels like a bit much at this point,” she said.

Commissioners, who serve both administrative and legislative roles, already do a lot of detail work in public meetings, approving claims and contracts.

But Wiltgen pointed out that under state law it is the County Board’s responsibility to approve all claims.

“It would be a simple hyperlink to the agenda. If there are questions, we ask questions. I don’t think it would take long.”

Commissioner Roma Amundson suggested the board could try this approach for a year and then re-evaluate and change it if it is cumbersome.

"What if an elected official just says, 'I'm not going to do it?'" asked Commissioner Bill Avery.

He wouldn’t get paid, Wiltgen replied.

County commissioners can't tell elected officials they cannot sign their own expense request forms, Wiltgen said. ”But we can tell them we are not going to pay them until we look at it."

Andy Stebbing reimbursements claims by Lincoln Journal Star on Scribd

KevinAbourezk / KAYLA WOLF, Journal Star 

Karen Heckman Stork, a local author and domestic abuse survivor, speaks to a crowd gathered for a candlelight vigil in observance of Domestic Violence Awareness Month on Thursday at Voices of Hope, 2545 N St. Heckman Stork's book "Screw the Eggshells" chronicles the verbal and psychological abuse she endured from her husband.

Murante says election concerns argue for voter photo ID
 Don Walton  / 

With a federal commitment in hand to help states manage risks to their election infrastructure, Sen. John Murante of Gretna said Thursday he will step up his efforts to establish voter photo identification requirements in Nebraska.

"The people of Nebraska absolutely support and demand voter identification," Murante said during a Capitol news conference.

"Properly crafted voter ID laws do not suppress voter turnout," he said. "This can be done without turning a single voter away."

Murante already has a proposal pending in the Legislature that would seek a vote of the people on a constitutional amendment to establish voter ID requirements in Nebraska. Senators could resume discussion of that item when they launch their 2018 session in January.

The measure (LR1CA) was trapped at first-stage floor consideration by a filibuster last spring, falling seven votes short of the 33 senators required to end debate.

Murante's motion to invoke cloture failed on a 26-17 count.

On Thursday, Murante once again rejected arguments that voter photo ID requirements suppress, and are sometimes designed to suppress, voter participation.

Opponents argue minority citizens, older Americans, people with disabilities, students and young mobile Americans are particularly affected.

Most of those impacted groups represent traditional pockets of Democratic support, critics have noted.

Murante said voter identification requirements are "a common sense proposal that has been politicized, and demonized to a certain extent."

Voter ID assurances are especially needed now when "public confidence in our election system has been undermined" by reports of voter irregularities and instances of voter fraud, he said.

Murante, chairman of the Legislature's Government and Military Affairs Committee, scheduled his news conference after receiving a letter from Trump administration officials pledging federal cooperation in ensuring the integrity of elections.

All of that is unfolding as Congress is investigating evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Christopher Krebs, a senior official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, wrote Murante a letter noting that election systems have been defined as critical infrastructure and informing him that the federal government stands ready to provide "prioritized assistance (in) efforts to manage risks to the election infrastructure."

Murante had previously written officials at the Presidential Commission on Election Integrity urging consideration of a federal-state partnership that would allow election administrators to instantaneously check the citizenship status of individuals seeking to register to vote.

In that letter, Murante also said the federal government should financially assist states in procuring replacement equipment for aging election infrastructure.

"Unfortunately, most of that technology is coming to the end of its useful life and states do not have the funding to procure new technology," he wrote.

Murante is completing his second and final term as a state senator and is a Republican candidate for state treasurer in 2018. 

Special prosecutor will probe State Patrol handling of fatal car crash
 jyoung  / 

A special prosecutor was appointed last week in Sheridan County to review how State Patrol members handled the aftermath of a fatal car wreck involving a patrol vehicle.

District Judge Travis O'Gorman appointed former U.S. Attorney for Nebraska Joe Stecher, who will look into any potential criminal wrongdoing that occurred in Sheridan County by Nebraska State Patrol officials. He will examine how they handled the investigation of a 2016 tactical vehicle intervention of a fleeing car that resulted in the death of the driver. 

Sheridan County Attorney Jamian Simmons said she had inquiries from Omaha Sen. Burke Harr and media about whether there would be a subsequent investigation regarding how the incident was handled by the patrol, and whether information was improperly presented to a grand jury looking into the fatal crash. The grand jury found no wrongdoing by the trooper involved in the crash.

"I just felt like it probably would be safest to have it looked at by an outside, independent prosecutor just to cover all the bases and make sure there weren't any outstanding issues," Simmons said.

Harr sent a letter to Simmons in September asking her to review and investigate the claims of serious misconduct by former patrol Superintendent Brad Rice in connection with the management of the fatal crash and any subsequent internal affairs investigations. 

Simmons declared a conflict of interest because of the potential she could be called as a witness or otherwise disqualified from the investigation, and requested a special prosecutor. 

Named on the order appointing the special prosecutor were four patrol employees stationed in the area -- Timothy Flick, Jamey Balthazor, Travis Wallace and Kevin Waugh -- who were suspended during a review of the patrol. The review was requested by Gov. Pete Ricketts and conducted by Jason Jackson, state chief human resources officer. 

Before it was complete, Ricketts fired Rice, saying the review uncovered interference in internal investigations at the highest level. 

The Associated Press reported that Stecher said Wednesday he was not aware of anything that would lead him to believe charges will be filed against any of the four patrol members named in court documents. None have been accused of any specific crime. 

Ricketts has said he had turned over information from the review to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Harr sent a letter to Special Agent Randall Thysse of the Omaha office of the FBI asking him to confirm any such investigation. Thysse replied the FBI generally does not comment on the status or existence of investigations. 

Harr said Ricketts knows something the public doesn't know because he fired Rice, and has left six troopers on paid administrative leave for three months. 

"As taxpayers we have a right to know why the governor decided to do what he did," Harr said. "There are cases being dismissed in counties because these officers can't come and testify."

ERIC GREGORY, Journal Star 

Workers search for access to a shutoff valve following a water main break near Ninth and N streets Thursday afternoon as motorists drive through the intersection.

GWYNETH ROBERTS, Journal Star file photo 

Lancaster County Treasurer Andy Stebbing (left) confers with his attorney, Sean Brennan, while awaiting his first appearance in Lancaster County Court on Sept. 22. Stebbing is accused of falsifying motor vehicle bills of sale, filing fraudulent state income tax returns and operating as an unlicensed dealer.

Lincoln woman, pardoned for shooting abusive husband, seeks $500K
 Lori Pilger  / 

A Lincoln woman who went to prison in 1999 for shooting her abusive husband and later was pardoned now is seeking $500,000 under Nebraska's Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment Act.

Attorney Herb Friedman says Charlene Marie, then Charlene Oldenburg, was wrongfully convicted and served nearly two years in prison for shooting her husband, Kurt Oldenburg, on July 30, 1998.

She shot him once with a .22-caliber handgun when he drunkenly charged at her at the couple's rural Gordon farmhouse.

The bullet struck him in the neck, leaving him partially paralyzed.

Marie, now 66, was charged with first-degree assault, making terroristic threats and use of a weapon. A Sheridan County District Court jury later found her not guilty of assault, but guilty of the gun and threats charges.

After then-District Judge Paul Empson sentenced her to four to 20 years in prison, she appealed, calling the sentences excessive. 

In an April 2001 decision, the Nebraska Court of Appeals agreed and reduced her sentence to two years.

In a dissent, one of the judges said Oldenburg never should have been tried.

"In this case, the terroristic threats statute, which was designed for clearly different circumstances than that in which Charlene found herself, has been used to severely punish a woman who was attempting to defend herself against a drunken, angry and abusive husband," Judge Edward E. Hannon wrote then.

She served nearly three months in prison more before her release July 11, 2001.

Five years later, the Nebraska Pardons Board gave her a full pardon, exonerating her, Friedman said.

In a complaint filed Wednesday in Lancaster County District Court, Friedman sought $500,000 from the state of Nebraska for Marie, the most he could, for damages he said resulted from "wrongful acts by county officials."

He said Marie's wrongful conviction and incarceration "caused her to suffer the loss of her personal privacy, personal liberty, extreme mental and physical anguish, emotional distress, humiliation, embarrassment, damage to her reputation, loss of earnings, impairment of her earning capacity."

In 2009, the Legislature passed the Nebraska Claims for Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment Act finding that innocent people who have been wrongly convicted of crimes and imprisoned have been uniquely victimized and should have an avenue of redress.

Kurt Oldenburg died in Lincoln in 2015.

The Associated Press file photo 

State Sen. John Murante of Gretna

ERIC GREGORY, Journal Star file photo 

State Sen. Burke Harr