Former state lawmaker Brenda Council won't spend time in prison but will spend the next three years under court supervision in a case involving gambled campaign funds.
U.S. District Judge Lyle Strom sentenced the former state senator from Omaha to three years' probation Thursday, following the terms of a plea deal Council had reached with federal prosecutors. She also will pay a $500 fine.
Council in September pleaded guilty to a federal wire fraud charge. The plea arrangement called for her to get probation rather than prison.
Council has acknowledged that she used campaign funds to gamble. The wire fraud charge came because she used a debit card at out-of-state casinos. According to the federal charge, she spent more than $63,000 of her campaign funds at casinos over 2½ years.
A prosecutor Thursday recommended four years' probation and a $2,000 fine. The federal probation department had advised two years' probation and a $500 fine.
Vince Powers of Lincoln, Council's attorney, told Strom that Council already had sentenced herself.
“She knows the harm she has caused herself, the harm she has caused her family,” said Powers, a longtime trial attorney and chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party.
Council said she never intended to harm anyone. She also said she wanted to express her “sincere gratitude” to her family, friends and supporters.
A number of them sat in the back of the courtroom, including her husband, Otha Council; her brother, former Omaha Police Chief Thomas Warren; and City Councilman Ben Gray and his wife, Freddie Gray, a former Omaha school board member.
Council said she had returned the funds to her campaign. Rightly or wrongly, she said, the situation has given her the opportunity to deal with a problem that she had avoided acknowledging.
“I just want to move on with my life and continue to be of some kind of service to my community,” she said.
Council declined to comment further after the sentencing hearing, other than to reiterate her appreciation for the support she has received.
Powers had a message to those friends and supporters. “It's been a tough time,” he said. “Send her some love.”
Wire fraud is a felony that can carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The crime came to light last year when Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning and his prosecutors found that Council had failed to report her casino withdrawals on her campaign finance reports.
She pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors in the resulting state case and paid a $500 fine. She also said at the time that she was seeking help for gambling problems.
Shortly after pleading to the federal charge, Council agreed to a temporary suspension of her law license. The plea prompted a review of the case by the Nebraska Supreme Court's Counsel for Discipline, which filed a motion seeking the suspension while disciplinary proceedings were underway.
It will be up to the state's high court whether to disbar Council, suspend her law license or take lesser disciplinary action. No decision has been made in the matter.
Amid the gambling controversy, Council lost her bid for re-election to north Omaha's District 11 legislative seat to State Sen. Ernie Chambers.
Council was elected in 2008 after serving on the Omaha school board and the Omaha City Council.