Bruning launches criminal probe of Hergert

Criminal investigators will soon be interviewing University of Nebraska Regent David Hergert as part of a probe into his campaign finances.

Attorney General Jon Bruning said Thursday his office and the State Patrol will investigate whether Hergert purposely withheld information about his campaign to keep his opponent, Regent Don Blank, from qualifying for matching state campaign funds just before the November election.

Hergert defeated Blank by 11 percentage points.

Bruning said he opened the investigation with no preconceived notions.

"This is not a witch hunt," Bruning said. "The public deserves to know completely and thoroughly what happened in this case — exactly what happened. Our goal is to create a complete record for all Nebraskans.

"Right now, this story has been told through the media … it has not been told through Mr. Hergert's mouth," Bruning said.

Hergert did not immediately return a telephone call to his office seeking comment.

His lawyer, W. Scott Davis, was not in his office and could not be reached to comment.

Bruning said he hoped to have the investigation done in three to four months.

Also, "We have received some assurance that Mr. Hergert is willing to talk to us," Bruning said.

State lawmakers in early June adopted a resolution 31-0 demanding that Hergert resign for breaking state campaign finance laws. The resolution gives the Legislature the power to hire a special counsel to look at "legislative options" — including impeachment — if Hergert does not quit.

Bruning said he did not launch the investigation solely because state Sen. Ernie Chambers had requested that he do so.

"Senator Chambers was by no means the only senator that asked this office to investigate," Bruning said. "I would say there were more than a dozen."

He also said there were senators who "believe Mr. Hergert is completely innocent."

Hergert recently said he would not step aside and reiterated that even though he admits breaking state campaign finance laws, he did not do so intentionally.

Hergert reached a settlement with the Accountability and Disclosure Commission in April in which he admitted accepting an illegal campaign loan and failing to report a late contribution and file two affidavits on time. He agreed to pay $33,512.10 in fines but not face any criminal charges.

Under the law, candidates for state offices have voluntary spending caps. For regents races, the cap is $25,000 for the primary and $50,000 overall.

Those who agree to abide by the limits qualify for public funds if their opponents exceed the cap.

Hergert did not agree to the cap and spent $65,000 in last year's primary, thus qualifying Blank for $40,000 in public funds.

Hergert, an agribusinessman from Mitchell, then estimated that he would spend $40,000 for the general election.

Hergert admitted that he exceeded the cap but did not notify the commission by the deadline, thus depriving Blank of $15,000 in matching funds in the closing days of the campaign.

Hergert spent much of his money on advertising that attacked Blank.

After the election, Hergert reported spending nearly $90,000 on the campaign — nearly twice his estimate.

Bruning said that knowingly filing a false affidavit is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Knowingly underestimating a campaign's maximum expenditure by 5 percent or more and intentionally filing a late report of a candidate's intention of exceeding campaign spending limits are misdemeanors punishable by six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Accountability and Disclosure Commission: http://nadc.nol.org/

Attorney General: http://www.ago.state.ne.us/

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