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The story of Brad Gianakos' life can easily be told.

A good job as a state attorney, a loving family, good friends and a peaceful home in a Country Club neighborhood with a partner who shared his life and his love.

He loved Christmas and Christmas lights. He had a soft spot for a neighborhood cat named Rocko. He took pleasure in landscaping, and his backyard reflected that enjoyment.

The story of his death — on a late April afternoon in that backyard near a pine tree, when no one was home but him — and the circumstances leading up to it, are not so easy to tell.

* * *

Gianakos, 54, spent almost 20 years working for the state of Nebraska, his last nine years as chief counsel for the Department of Health and Human Services.

He represented the department in juvenile proceedings, attended court hearings, gave advice and counsel to child welfare caseworkers, suggested the best courses of legal action for his coworkers and the department, advocated for Nebraskans.

In the days following his death, the people who knew him and knew his work left their tributes in writing, describing Gianakos as compassionate, thoughtful, trustworthy, professional, kind, humble and unafraid to stand up for what was right. He served the state well, they said, and left the world a better place.

Prior to Gov. Pete Ricketts' election, Gianakos reported to former Health and Human Services CEO Kerry Winterer for five years as the head of the legal department.

"I worked closely with him on a daily basis," Winterer said. "Brad was the consummate professional in his work habits and highly competent as a lawyer and adviser."

His experience in state government made him valuable in identifying and then solving legal issues, Winterer said. "But what is most important, his judgment in doing his job was always guided by his sense of ethics, his integrity and his sense of fair play," he said.

But on March 6, the attorney was called into the office of Bo Botelho, the chief operating officer of HHS who, with Human Resources Director Theresa Hill, fired Gianakos and had him escorted out of the building by state troopers.

CEO Courtney Phillips, when asked about Gianakos' firing, said: "I’m not going to get into the situation with Brad out of respect for Brad and Brad being deceased. So I won’t go into that."

He wasn't the only one who was fired and escorted out. Over a year or more, before and after him, there were others. People in private industry are accustomed to that process. People in the Department of Health and Human Services were not.

Phillips is taking a similar job in Texas this month, but is leaving behind an agency emptied of many longtime managers or administrators, and what they have described as a harsh working environment under her leadership.

In a March 21 text to Kellie Graham, a former human resources administrator and personnel analyst with the state Department of Administrative Services, Gianakos said Botelho did not explain his dismissal, other than to say, "We are going in a different direction."

Gianakos said he understood the risk of serving at the pleasure of whoever was in charge when he accepted a discretionary position, and he didn't regret it.

"I learned and was exposed to a lot during my time in that position," he said in the text, which Graham shared. But he added: "It's not the same place it was a few years ago in my opinion."

* * *

Pete Gianakos, Brad's brother, said there's no question in his mind that his brother's suicide was related to his firing, although he's not putting all the blame on HHS. He thinks Brad must have been susceptible to those thoughts, "and that sent him downward into a spiral and he never got out of it."

As a discretionary political appointee, his brother said, Brad knew that each new administration could exercise its right to let him go. But Ricketts' administration had kept him on, and he thought he was OK.

Beyond the loss of his job, Brad was upset he did not get even a thank you for his nearly 20 years of serving the people of Nebraska.

"It destroyed him," Pete Gianakos said. "His job was everything to him."

But Pete Gianakos didn't know the extent of the dark place his brother went to after he was fired. In a million years he never imagined his brother, with no history of depression, would take his life.

Part of Brad's hopelessness, several people have said, was that he had three interviews for state jobs after he left HHS, and none of those agencies would hire him. He drew conclusions that he was being blackballed despite no allegations he did anything wrong.

* * *

In September, Pete Gianakos put a call in to Ricketts on his monthly statewide call-in show. He wasn't sure he would get on, but he found himself talking to the governor.

He gave his name and said he wanted to talk a little about his brother, who was "an excellent attorney" and won numerous awards, including being a Nebraska State Bar Foundation Fellow.

"He dedicated his life to the state of Nebraska in helping people. He donated 1,500 hours to one of his coworkers who was sick and needed the time. His coworkers loved him," the brother told Ricketts.

"I'm calling to tell you I think what DHHS did to him was disgusting," he said. "And I will never forget the people that did it, especially after what Brad gave, how he dedicated his life to helping the people of Nebraska."

Ricketts thanked him for calling in, told him he couldn't discuss personnel matters in public, and said, "But I want you to know I'm very sorry for the loss of your brother."

Pete Gianakos said later he was surprised he got as far as he did with the call.

"To me, this is one of the most important stories," he said. "To me, this is about human decency and about what kind of people we want to be. It is about holding government accountable, which is what we should all be doing."

* * *

The Rev. Tom Brouillette spoke to family and friends at Brad Gianakos' Mass of Christian Burial at Cathedral of the Risen Christ about forgiveness, about the messy place that is the world, about how a sudden loss can take your breath away.

Brad's death was his decision, but no one knows how responsible he was in that decision, he said. "We will not imitate his act or honor it in any way," the priest said. "But we will not despair of his eternal salvation."

Family and friends could ask God to forgive Brad, and "so that we do not grow too attached to the pain, when the time is right we ask the Father to forgive those who may have hurt Brad. ... We don't need to forget, but we will remain in pain if we do not forgive in time."

It could have been the onset of a sudden mental illness that did not allow Brad to complete his natural life. He asked people to help Brad complete his life by doing some good deed on his behalf, such as serving the poor at the Gathering Place as he did, or providing their professional expertise to someone in need at no cost.

"How often he worked for the good of those who couldn't do it for themselves," Brouillette said.

"I'm sure he had his faults, but to be kind and gentle and the right kind of tough as a attorney fighting for the rights of those less capable of defending themselves, or for the vulnerable and the poor? Wow!" he said.

Brad left a simple note at his death to those he loved.

"I am so sorry you are reading this," he said. "Please forgive me. I love you all. Take care of each other."

The story of Brad Gianakos' life can easily be told. 

A good job as a state attorney, a loving family, good friends and a peaceful home in a Country Club neighborhood with a partner who shared his life and his love. 

He loved Christmas and Christmas lights. He had a soft spot for a neighborhood cat named Rocko. He took pleasure in landscaping, and his backyard reflected that enjoyment.

The story of his death — on a late April afternoon in that backyard near a pine tree, when no one was home but him — and the circumstances leading up to it, are not so easy to tell.  

* * *

Gianakos, 54, spent almost 20 years working for the state of Nebraska, his last nine years as chief counsel for the Department of Health and Human Services.

He represented the department in juvenile proceedings, attended court hearings, gave advice and counsel to child welfare caseworkers, suggested the best courses of legal action for his coworkers and the department, advocated for Nebraskans.

In the days following his death, the people who knew him and knew his work left their tributes in writing, describing Gianakos as compassionate, thoughtful, trustworthy, professional, kind, humble and unafraid to stand up for what was right. He served the state well, they said, and left the world a better place. 

Prior to Gov. Pete Ricketts' election, Gianakos reported to former Health and Human Services CEO Kerry Winterer for five years as the head of the legal department.

"I worked closely with him on a daily basis," Winterer said. "Brad was the consummate professional in his work habits and highly competent as a lawyer and adviser."

His experience in state government made him valuable in identifying and then solving legal issues, Winterer said. "But what is most important, his judgment in doing his job was always guided by his sense of ethics, his integrity and his sense of fair play," he said.

But on March 6, the attorney was called into the office of Bo Botelho, the chief operating officer of HHS who, with Human Resources Director Theresa Hill, fired Gianakos and had him escorted out of the building by state troopers.

CEO Courtney Phillips, when asked about Gianakos' firing, said: "I’m not going to get into the situation with Brad out of respect for Brad and Brad being deceased. So I won’t go into that."

He wasn't the only one who was fired and escorted out. Over a year or more, before and after him, there were others. People in private industry are accustomed to that process. People in the Department of Health and Human Services were not. 

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Phillips is taking a similar job in Texas this month, but is leaving behind an agency emptied of many longtime managers or administrators, and what they have described as a harsh working environment under her leadership.

In a March 21 text to Kellie Graham, a former human resources administrator and personnel analyst with the state Department of Administrative Services, Gianakos said Botelho did not explain his dismissal, other than to say, "We are going in a different direction."

Gianakos said he understood the risk of serving at the pleasure of whoever was in charge when he accepted a discretionary position, and he didn't regret it.

"I learned and was exposed to a lot during my time in that position," he said in the text, which Graham shared. But he added: "It's not the same place it was a few years ago in my opinion." 

* * *

Pete Gianakos, Brad's brother, said there's no question in his mind that his brother's suicide was related to his firing, although he's not putting all the blame on HHS. He thinks Brad must have been susceptible to those thoughts, "and that sent him downward into a spiral and he never got out of it." 

As a discretionary political appointee, his brother said, Brad knew that each new administration could exercise its right to let him go. But Ricketts' administration had kept him on, and he thought he was OK.

Beyond the loss of his job, Brad was upset he did not get even a thank you for his nearly 20 years of serving the people of Nebraska.

"It destroyed him," Pete Gianakos said. "His job was everything to him." 

But Pete Gianakos didn't know the extent of the dark place his brother went to after he was fired. In a million years he never imagined his brother, with no history of depression, would take his life. 

Part of Brad's hopelessness, several people have said, was that he had three interviews for state jobs after he left HHS, and none of those agencies would hire him. He drew conclusions that he was being blackballed despite no allegations he did anything wrong.

* * *

In September, Pete Gianakos put a call in to Ricketts on his monthly statewide call-in show. He wasn't sure he would get on, but he found himself talking to the governor.

He gave his name and said he wanted to talk a little about his brother, who was "an excellent attorney" and won numerous awards, including being a Nebraska State Bar Foundation Fellow.

"He dedicated his life to the state of Nebraska in helping people. He donated 1,500 hours to one of his coworkers who was sick and needed the time. His coworkers loved him," the brother told Ricketts.

"I'm calling to tell you I think what DHHS did to him was disgusting," he said. "And I will never forget the people that did it, especially after what Brad gave, how he dedicated his life to helping the people of Nebraska."

Ricketts thanked him for calling in, told him he couldn't discuss personnel matters in public, and said, "But I want you to know I'm very sorry for the loss of your brother."

Pete Gianakos said later he was surprised he got as far as he did with the call. 

"To me, this is one of the most important stories," he said. "To me, this is about human decency and about what kind of people we want to be. It is about holding government accountable, which is what we should all be doing."

* * *

The Rev. Tom Brouillette spoke to family and friends at Brad Gianakos' Mass of Christian Burial at Cathedral of the Risen Christ about forgiveness, about the messy place that is the world, about how a sudden loss can take your breath away. 

Brad's death was his decision, but no one knows how responsible he was in that decision, he said. "We will not imitate his act or honor it in any way," the priest said. "But we will not despair of his eternal salvation." 

Family and friends could ask God to forgive Brad, and "so that we do not grow too attached to the pain, when the time is right we ask the Father to forgive those who may have hurt Brad. ... We don't need to forget, but we will remain in pain if we do not forgive in time." 

It could have been the onset of a sudden mental illness that did not allow Brad to complete his natural life. He asked people to help Brad complete his life by doing some good deed on his behalf, such as serving the poor at the Gathering Place as he did, or providing their professional expertise to someone in need at no cost.

"How often he worked for the good of those who couldn't do it for themselves," Brouillette said.

"I'm sure he had his faults, but to be kind and gentle and the right kind of tough as a attorney fighting for the rights of those less capable of defending themselves, or for the vulnerable and the poor? Wow!" he said. 

Brad left a simple note at his death to those he loved.

"I am so sorry you are reading this," he said. "Please forgive me. I love you all. Take care of each other."

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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