State Sen. Ken Haar is asking Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning for answers about a $100,000 contribution Bruning announced earlier this week to the group We Support Agriculture.
Bruning, also a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, presented a check for that amount to Keith Olsen, outgoing president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation, at the Farm Bureau's convention in Kearney.
The money comes from the attorney general's Supplemental Environmental Project Fund, which contains fines and agreed-upon enforcement payments for violations of state environmental laws.
It goes to an organization formed by the Farm Bureau and other mainstream agricultural groups to portray farmer and rancher treatment of livestock in a positive light and to oppose efforts of the Humane Society of the United States and other animal advocacy groups to change livestock practices.
Haar, of Malcolm and a member of the Legislature's Natural Resources Committee, was less than comfortable with what he had learned of that arrangement as of Thursday afternoon.
"We need to find out what the process is for awarding that money," he said. "Right now it leaves the appearance that the attorney general is gifting an organization. It doesn't feel right."
In an email response to the Journal Star, Bruning spokeswoman Shannon Kingery said, in part, "In considering appropriate supplemental environmental projects the attorney general's office looks for educational and enhancement programs that directly benefit Nebraskans."
Jay Rempe of the Farm Bureau said We Support Agriculture submitted an application for the money with the understanding it would go to an educational campaign and efforts to "raise awareness about livestock and the lengths that farmers and ranchers go to protect their animals."
Rempe acknowledged the legal structure of We Support Agriculture is geared toward raising money, as one objective, and "there could be a political element" to its spending and activities at some point.
But none of the $100,000 will be spent on a political purpose, he said.
"This money will be separated out and segregated out and it will only go to educational efforts."
An aide to Haar said later Wednesday that Bruning also had responded to the senator's inquiry, agreeing to provide answers in "the next couple weeks."
"I'm not judging ... the organization that received this money," Haar said. "It's the process by which the money is gifted."
State Democratic Chairman Vic Covalt thought he'd heard enough to draw certain conclusions.
"This guy is running for office," Covalt said of Bruning. "This stinks. It looks like a return of the old-fashioned politics of patronage to me."
Jane Kleeb of Hastings and Bold Nebraska said her group also has been conducting an environmental education campaign in opposing the Keystone XL pipeline.
No matter where the $100,000 came from, she said, "the money is now in the government coffers, if you will."
"And those monies should not be to further any ideology, whether progressive, moderate or conservative."
On the other hand, she said with a laugh, "if he wants to give us $100,000, we'll take it. But come on. It's never going to happen."