Sen. Brenda Council pleaded guilty and was fined $500 in Lancaster County Court on Tuesday for using campaign funds to gamble at casinos, without reporting the expenditures or deposits on her campaign finance reports.

Council, 58, walked into the Lancaster County Courthouse on Tuesday at about 1:15 p.m., hand-in-hand with her husband, Otha, and with attorney Vince Powers.

In front of Lancaster County Judge Gale Pokorny she plead guilty to both counts, which are Class II misdemeanors, punishable by up to six months in jail or a $1,000 fine.

Her sentence was $250 for each of the two counts.

Council told the judge she had apologized to her family and friends and the state for using campaign funds to gamble at the Sac & Fox casino in Kansas. And she intends to repay the funds.

She paid the fine and court costs immediately after leaving the courtroom.

Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning announced the two misdemeanor public records abuse charges last week.

Standing in front of the courthouse after her appearance, Council repeated she had admitted her gambling problem.

"It caused me to commit a grave error in judgment. And that is being addressed as well, has been addressed, and right now I'm just looking forward to moving forward and continuing to serve the great residents of the state of Nebraska.

"We all fall down, and what I'm doing right now is getting back up."

Prosecutors said she filed campaign reports that concealed her misuse of more than $60,000 in campaign donations at casinos.

Bruning said bank records and casino security videos showed that Council withdrew a total of $63,052 at casinos on several occasions and then deposited $36,166 in cash back into the campaign fund. Council has agreed to repay the $27,000 shortfall.

She was represented in court by attorney Kathleen Neary.

Powers said Tuesday that sometimes a demon gets the best of a person, and everybody fights demons. 

"Today, and this year, the demon won. But I'm positive Sen. Council will win in the end," he said.  

Council has had one of the most distinguished public service careers in the state, he said. "She has always cared about her community, the city of Omaha and the state."

"One of the great things about being in Nebraska … we judge a person by the totality of their lives, not by one incident," Powers said. 

Council is running against her predecessor, Ernie Chambers, who was the longest-serving member of the Nebraska Legislature. A write-in candidate, Susan Smith, also is seeking the seat.

Chambers said last week he was sad and disappointed at the charges, but he is running for the office, not against Council. So whether she continues with her campaign or not has no impact on him.

Smith said it would be appropriate for Council to withdraw from the race. State law does not prohibit her from running with misdemeanor convictions.

If she returns to the Legislature, senators could address the issue in the next session by voting on whether to expel her. It would take a two-thirds vote of all members elected to the Legislature to do that.

Council has served in several public offices and has received numerous awards and honors, including the Nebraska State Bar Association's Professionalism Award, the Urban League of Nebraska National Prominence Award, the Outstanding Young Omahan and Nebraskan awards, and installation as the 62nd Face on the Floor of the Omaha Press Club.

Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com.

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

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