Charges against Brenda Council tied to gambling - Omaha.com
Published Thursday, September 13, 2012 at 12:00 am / Updated at 1:24 am
Charges against Brenda Council tied to gambling

• Click here to read the full text of Brenda Council's statement.

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LINCOLN --Some of State Sen. Brenda Council's biggest supporters remained firmly in her corner this morning despite the fact the North Omaha lawmaker was charged with using $63,000 in campaign dollars to gamble.

Several said Council deserved a second chance, noting she readily admitted to making a mistake and was seeking treatment for a gambling addiction.

“She's accepted responsibility for her problems, and most people can identify with having problems in life,” said Fred Conley, a key Council supporter. “She's moving forward to address her problems and I don't think -- based on her record in the Legislature that her problems have affected her ability to serve the district.”

Council, a longtime force in Omaha politics, was charged Wednesday with two misdemeanors. Attorney General Jon Bruning said she spent about $63,000 in campaign contributions at casinos over a two-year period.

Council said she would plead guilty to the charges Tuesday. She also vowed to continue her bid for a second term in the Nebraska Legislature.

“I am truly sorry for my error and I apologize to my family, my contributors, my supporters and to the public,” said Council in a written statement Tuesday.

Council faces a formidable challenge to winning re-election in November. She is running against Ernie Chambers, a former state senator who is a household name in Legislative District 11 and across much of Nebraska.

Council faced a tough fight before her gambling woes were revealed Wednesday. In the primary election, Chambers took 52 percent of the vote, while Council came in second with 48 percent. Both candidates advanced.

Still, Conley and several Council supporters predicted she could win in November. Douglas County Commissioner Chris Rodgers and Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray both urged Council to stay in the race Thursday.

Rodgers predicted that many people in Council's legislative district would rally around a candidate who admitted to making some “human mistakes.”

“That district is a district with a lot of spirit and faith-filled people. I don't think anyone can throw stones,” said Rodgers. “She's helped a lot of people that have been in worse situations, and this is definitely not the time you turn your back on her.”In a written statement, Council said she had “made an error in judgment” and is taking full responsibility for her actions.

Under state law, misdemeanor convictions are not enough to keep Council from running for the Legislature.

Council has noted that she paid back $36,000 of the nearly 63,000 she spent. She said she plans to pay it all back.

But she did not include either the withdrawals or the deposits on campaign finance reports. Bruning's office filed two misdemeanor counts of abuse of public records against Council for that failure to report.

Public problems with gambling are not new for Council, 58.

In 2005, she signed a form voluntarily banning herself from all Iowa casinos. Such bans generally are used by people who want to stop themselves from gambling.

The ban became public after Council pleaded guilty to trespassing at Bluffs Run Casino on Aug. 31, 2005. At the time, she denied having a gambling problem.

But Bruning said Council, when confronted with the evidence against her, told his staff that she would seek help.

“She was very contrite,” he said. “I would say she was disappointed in herself. She did not deny the facts as we presented them.”

The charges against Council are misdemeanors carrying a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Bruning said he would not recommend for or against jail time.

He says he does not believe the charges will bar her from serving in the Legislature. A felony conviction would have required her to step down.

Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, chairman of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, said he was surprised and disturbed to hear about Council's legal troubles.

He said it was premature to speculate about whether the expected convictions could lead to impeachment.

“I think this is an extreme blow to her campaign, so it might make moot any action the Legislature might take,” he said.

Chambers, her opponent, said he doesn't know what impact the charges will have on the election. Chambers held the District 11 seat for 38 years before term limits forced him out.

He said he was shocked at first by the news, then “felt a sense of profound sadness and disappointment.”

Chambers said he was saddened because he has known Council since she was young and has supported her politically through the years.

The disappointment was because she did not take the steps necessary to deal with her gambling problem, despite being an intelligent, educated person, he said.

Chambers, a staunch opponent of gambling, said the situation demonstrates the destructiveness of gambling and the need to deal with gambling addiction.

“If anything can be salvaged from this, it is to show how devastating this addiction can be,” he said. “If this can bring down someone like Brenda, it should not be ignored.”

The expected convictions also could put Council, an attorney, at risk of disciplinary action against her law license.

Under Nebraska Supreme Court rules, it is considered professional misconduct for lawyers to “commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer.” Conduct involving “dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation” also is considered professional misconduct.

Although the charges could affect the election, Bruning said he did not feel he could wait to file them.

He said his office began investigating after law enforcement received a tip this spring. He declined to say where the tip came from, but he said it was not from Chambers or his supporters.

The investigation was conducted in cooperation with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission, which oversees campaign finance reporting laws.

As part of the investigation, the Attorney General's Office subpoenaed casino records and videotape.

Bruning said the tape showed Council making withdrawals at the cashier's cage and using the money on slot machines and table games. He said most of the money was spent at the Sac & Fox Casino, which is near Powhattan, Kan., in the northeastern corner of the state.

Bruning said he could have charged Council with intentional false filing of a campaign report, which would have been a felony.

He also could have filed misdemeanor counts for each of the campaign finance reports filed since January 2010, rather than for just the two most recent reports, and counts related to using campaign funds for personal expenses.

Bruning said prosecutors have wide discretion over what charges to file.

In this case, he said, the penalty probably would have been the same, no matter how many counts were filed, and felony charges would have required more time and expense on the part of the state.

He also considered the fact that, as a state senator, any level of charges against Council would be very public.

“I don't take Senator Council's long, distinguished career in public service very lightly,” Bruning said.

In addition to the Legislature, Council has served on the Omaha school board and City Council. She ran for mayor against Hal Daub twice, in 1994 and in 1997, losing the second time by fewer than 800 votes.

Bruning said he would not file additional charges against Council for taking money out of her campaign fund and not repaying it. While a county attorney could pursue such charges, he said he does not anticipate that happening.

In her statement, Council said she “borrowed” money from her campaign funds “with every intention to pay it back.” She said she has repaid “the bulk of the money” and is in the process of repaying the rest.

“There was no malicious intent on my part,” she said.

Her last campaign finance report, filed in June, showed that her campaign had $50,795 left after the primary election.

Council will appear Tuesday in Lancaster County Court.

World-Herald staff writer Joe Duggan contributed to this report.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9583, martha.stoddard@owh.com

Contact the writer: Martha Stoddard

martha.stoddard@owh.com    |   402-473-9583    |  

Martha covers the Nebraska Legislature, the governor, state agencies, and health, education and budget issues out of our Lincoln bureau.

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