Political and financial backers of State Sen. Brenda Council pledged their continued support Thursday, despite legal charges that she used $63,000 in campaign donations to gamble at casinos.
Only one of several supporters interviewed expressed something less than full backing for Council, who is seeking re-election against former State Sen. Ernie Chambers to represent north Omaha.
“We'll have to see,” said John Hoppe Jr. of the Nebraska Realtors Association.
Hoppe, of Lincoln, said members of the Realtors' political action committee, which contributed $1,000 to Council in the primary, will discuss the matter during a scheduled meeting next week.
Would they provide another contribution?
“She's supported the Realtors' issues pretty well for us,” Hoppe said. “I would say I don't know.”
Others say they remain firmly in Council's corner and that the 58-year-old legislator deserved a second chance.
Ken Mass of the Nebraska State AFL-CIO said he ran into Council at a fundraiser for another legislative candidate Wednesday night and was impressed that she was out in public and willing to admit her gambling problem and her mistake.
“You can climb in a hole and not face anyone, but that's not Brenda,” Mass said.
Attorney General Jon Bruning on Wednesday charged Council with two misdemeanors for spending campaign contributions at casinos over a two-year period.
She failed to include either deposits or withdrawals on campaign finance reports, prompting the filing of two counts of abuse of public records. Campaign funds, by state law, cannot be used for purposes such as gambling.
Council said she would plead guilty to the charges and is getting treatment for gambling addiction. She has paid back $36,000 of the nearly $63,000 she spent, and she plans to repay the rest.
She vowed to continue her bid for a second term in the Legislature. Under state law, misdemeanor convictions would not prevent Council from running.
Chambers outpolled Council by 149 votes in the District 11 primary. Some observers say that a higher voter turnout in the fall, spurred in part by the re-election campaign of President Barack Obama, could benefit Council, a fellow Democrat.
“Something like this doesn't help,” Lincoln lobbyist Walt Radcliffe said of the charges. “But at the same time, people are reasonably understanding and forgiving.”
Douglas County Commissioner Chris Rodgers and Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray both urged Council to stay in the race.
Rodgers predicted that many people in Council's district would rally around a candidate who admitted to making some “human mistakes.”
“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,” he said.
Nancy Fulton, president of the state teachers union, the Nebraska State Education Association, said Council has been a “champion for children and education” and will continue to be.
“We appreciate that she is working to address a difficult personal issue in a very public manner,” Fulton said in a statement.
The last time a state senator got into trouble for misusing campaign funds was in 2005, when then-Sen. Ray Mossey of Bellevue was fined $14,000 for using contributions for rent, tattoos and gas.
In 1992, Fred Conley, then a member of the Omaha City Council, was fined $1,700 for using campaign funds to purchase clothes, eyeglasses, haircuts and magazines.
Said Conley, a key Council supporter: “I don't think — based on her record in the Legislature — that her problems have affected her ability to serve the district.”
Frank Daley of the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission said using donations for gambling or personal expenses such as haircuts or clothing is not allowed.
He said there are some exceptions for things such as midterm polls or town hall meetings, and even to hire baby sitters.
Though Bruning said he acted on a tip, campaign abuses typically come to light if a candidate refuses to disclose her spending or declines to correct a mistaken expenditure, Daley said. The commission also has the authority to audit and subpoena records.
“Our goal is compliance,” Daley said. “It's not ‘Gotcha.'”
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