A campaign to gather petition signatures to stop a repeal of the death penalty spent $903,000 over the summer, campaign finance reports show. 

Nebraskans For the Death Penalty raised just over $913,000, a third of it from Gov. Pete Ricketts and his father Joe Ricketts. 

Nebraskans for Public Safety, the group that wants to see the repeal become law, collected about half the amount the pro-death penalty group brought in and spent a little more than $455,000 to oppose the referendum petition campaign.

In August, petition campaign organizers turned in nearly 167,000 signatures when it needed 113,883. 

Earlier this month, the Secretary of State's Office reported that enough signatures had been both certified and verified to meet the 10 percent threshold to put a hold on the repeal until a November 2016 vote.

In addition to the Ricketts family, funding to gather those signatures has come largely from monied donors and groups who contribute to Republican and conservative candidates and causes.

The campaign finance report, filed Monday afternoon with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission, showed the group raised about $254,000 in the latest reporting period, which covered July 28 through Sept. 21.

The Washington-based Judicial Crisis Network, led by chief counsel and policy director Carrie Severino, has paid for about one-third of the costs of the petition drive. It offered up another $100,000 this period, on top of earlier $200,000 contributions. 

Ricketts said recently he had not contributed to the network. 

Asked for a list of Nebraska contributors, Judicial Crisis Network officials responded:"We are ethically bound to protect the privacy rights of our supporters. To prevent any unwarranted inferences from being drawn, we do not confirm or deny questions about supporters and/or related information."

Officials said no matter where a person stands on the issue of the death penalty, "we can all agree that Nebraskans should have the ability to democratically express themselves on such a weighty matter. The Judicial Crisis Network supports this measure allowing Nebraskans to decide on the death penalty for themselves."

Other sizable contributions to Nebraskans for the Death Penalty in this period came from: 

* Robert Mercer, $100,000. Mercer, of the hedge fund firm Renaissance Technologies in New York, is said to be a major contributor to Republican politics.

* C.L. Werner of Werner Enterprises, $25,000.

* Richard Uihlein, $10,000. Uihlein, a businessman from Lake Forest, Illinois, is a major contributor to conservative candidates and causes.

* State Sen. Merv Riepe of Ralston, and campaigns of Sens. John Kuehn of Heartwell, Lydia Brasch of Bancroft and Jim Smith of Papillion, $1,000 each.

Chris Peterson, campaign co-manager, said the challenge in the short-term will be raising additional funds to defend the petition drive from lawsuits.

"We know opponents are and will continue to be well-funded. So the committee's fundraising efforts continue with this in mind," he said. 

Opponents to the petition campaign have filed two lawsuits in recent weeks. 

Nebraskans for Public Safety filed a lawsuit in Lancaster County District Court on behalf of longtime death penalty opponents Christy and Richard Hargesheimer, questioning the validity of the petition process based on the belief that Ricketts' name was omitted from the list of sponsors even though he is the "primary initiating force" behind the petition. 

A second lawsuit, filed by Lyle Koenig, a private practice attorney in Gage County, alleges the ballot language prepared by Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson and Secretary of State John Gale is insufficient or unfair.

Nebraskans for Public Safety reported Monday collecting $461,579, but only about $10,500 in cash in the most current reporting period. In-kind contributions this period totaled about $17,500. 

The largest single contributors to the organization have been the Protreus Action League, a social justice group out of Massachusetts, which gave $400,000, and philanthropist Richard Holland, a key Democratic contributor, who gave $20,000.

Equal Justice USA of Brooklyn, New York, has contributed in-kind staff time worth $12,500. 

“Our campaign is proud to have garnered strong grassroots support over the summer in addition to national support from a very diverse set of donors," said Danielle Conrad, spokeswoman for Nebraskans for Public Safety. "Almost 300 Nebraskans have added contributions large and small to help our campaign educate Nebraskans about why the death penalty is broken and belongs in our past."

She said the group has gotten a positive outpouring of support from conservative leaders, faith groups, victims’ families and traditional death penalty opponents, and has a growing list of more than 200 grassroots volunteers statewide.

"We will continue to raise funds aggressively in Nebraska and beyond to ensure we have the resources we need to share our positive message with Nebraska voters," Conrad said.

Nebraska's death penalty was repealed by the Legislature in May with the passage of LB268. Ricketts vetoed the bill, but lawmakers voted 30-19 to override that veto.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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