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Bruning says wealth overstated, invested with friends
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Bruning says wealth overstated, invested with friends

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Countering expansive estimates of his personal wealth, Attorney General Jon Bruning said Tuesday his net worth probably is close to $3 million to $4 million.

"That's my best guess," Bruning said during an hour-long interview in Lincoln.

Conceivably, he said, that figure "could reach $5 million to $6 million" under ideal market conditions when the value of his primary investments in two storage businesses and four rural banks might be at a peak.

Bruning said he was willing to put a figure on his net worth for the first time to try to dispel wild estimates of his wealth. The financial disclosure statements required of him as a U.S. Senate candidate establish a wide range of personal asset figures.

In that report, the value of Bruning's assets placed him in a cumulative range category of between $12 million and $61 million. But he also reported debts in an expansive cumulative range category of between $7 million and $35 million, most of it in the form of bank loans, the largest of which came from Great Western Bank in Omaha.

Those figures have led to speculation of enormous wealth that are "not even close" to the mark, Bruning said. He acknowledged he has been fortunate in choosing investment partners, most of whom are contemporaries who were fraternity brothers in Sigma Phi Epsilon at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Bruning also deflected criticism of his joint purchase of a lakeside home near the Platte River with two Nelnet executives a year after he had been accused of acting favorably toward the student loan company when it was under fire for allegedly improper business practices.

"It's an above-board time-share arrangement where each of us pays one-third," Bruning said.

The two Nelnet officials are friends, he said.

"This is not this big a state," he said. "I have friends who are involved in the community."

Bruning has been battered for a week by newspaper stories and ads raising questions about his accumulation of wealth while serving as attorney general and allegations suggesting cozy relationships with corporate interests.

The firestorm was initiated by full-page newspaper ads paid for by the Nebraska Democratic Party, which Paul Johnson, campaign manager for Sen. Ben Nelson, said were prompted by a Bruning remark associating welfare recipients with ravaging raccoons.

The ads depicted Bruning, a 2012 Republican Senate candidate, as a raccoon surrounded by pots of money, and Johnson has since suggested the attorney general has leveraged his office for personal gain, pointing to gifts and free trips.

"I can't stop people who try to throw mud or cast aspersions," Bruning said. "I know I have done, and am doing, the right thing. People who know me know I'm a person of integrity."

In answer to questions, Bruning said there is no conflict of interest in his business investments, numerous corporate board memberships or his personal relationships with Nelnet executives.  

Asked if he thinks he may have made some mistakes, Bruning said: "No, I don't think so. I am comfortable with who I am."

Recognizing that the attorney general's office represents the state Department of Banking, Bruning said, he would recuse, or disassociate, himself from any official actions involving the four banks in which he has invested.

"The Department of Banking knows that," he said.

Bruning said he engages in "no day-to-day involvement" or management of the banks or the two storage companies in Bellevue and Des Moines.

In spite of a week of pummeling, Bruning said he doesn't believe the furor has done him any political damage.

"I don't think so," he said. "The truth is a defense."

Bruning outlined in some detail the history of his financial activities.

A brief summation:

* He said he "made a lot of money" in the 1990s as a salesman earning six-figures for an Omaha company called Vital Learning, which marketed sales management training.

* When he left the job to seek election to the Legislature, he invested money through Ameritrade and rode a rising stock market.

* Bruning later invested in a Bellevue storage facility in partnership with Dave Paladino of Omaha upon the recommendation of a former college roommate, Doug Ayer, who was a Sig Ep. Bruning owns half of the Bellevue operation.

* Subsequently, Bruning acquired half-interest in a storage facility in Des Moines in partnership with Paladino.

* Bruning acquired stock in a rural Nebraska bank in Davenport along with David Gale and David Rogers, both fraternity brothers. Later, he invested in a bank in Madison upon the recommendation of Gale.

* At the suggestion of Rogers, they formed a holding company called Frontier Holdings. It has added banks in Pender and Falls City.

The banks and the two storage facilities are his major investments, Bruning said, and he's "not doing anything day to day" in terms of managing or operating them.

Reach Don Walton at 402-473-7248 or at dwalton@journalstar.com.

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