For decades, Nebraska governors have handed out thousands of admiralships in the mythical “Great Navy of Nebraska” — a way to honor celebrities, heroes and ordinary citizens.
Astronauts John Glenn and Clayton Anderson. Entertainers Bob Hope and Johnny Carson. Local school board members and police officers.
Now you can add African strongman Yahya Jammeh.
The new admiral, who is the president of Gambia, has been criticized for alleged human rights violations and has said he would “cut off the head” of any homosexuals found in the country.
“This is a real unsavory despot,” said Frank Smyth of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based organization that tries to raise awareness of press freedom issues around the world.
So the group was shocked last month when a smiling Jammeh was photographed holding the gold-framed certificate from Gov. Dave Heineman.
It isn't clear whether Jammeh read the entire tongue-in-cheek proclamation, which ordered all “seamen, tadpoles and goldfish” to obey the admiral.
Or whether he knew that Nebraska has no fleet — other than the floating covered wagon depicted on the certificate.
While the certificate declares that the honoree is “a good person and a loyal friend and counselor,” Heineman doesn't know the Gambian president, never approved the admiralship and did not personally sign the certificate.
Nor did anyone on Heineman's staff give more than cursory attention to Jammeh's nomination, requested by a man in San Francisco.
It was one of more than 7,000 admiralships bestowed by Heineman since he took office in 2005.
“It's just not feasible for us to do background checks,” said Jen Rae Hein, a spokeswoman for the governor. “This is in no way an endorsement from Nebraska of this person's politics.”
The governor personally gives a handful of admiralships — perhaps a dozen or so per year — to visiting dignitaries or other noteworthy people, Hein said. Nearly all the awards are handled by staff members, who process nominations by state senators and others who want to honor people for their contributions to the state.
Guidelines posted on the governor's website say either the nominator or nominee must be from Nebraska, but Hein said any current admiral can nominate anyone else, even if neither is from Nebraska.
That was the case with Jammeh's nomination. It arrived in January from Nasser Heydarian, who described himself as a medical doctor but used a San Francisco coffee shop as his mailing address.
Hein said Heydarian did not identify Jammeh as the Gambian president but gave this reason for making him an admiral: “He is very good with poor people and always he is helping them.”
Heineman had honored Heydarian as an admiral in 2006, after a nomination from Robert Ray Hill of Kentucky.
Hill has worked for organizations criticized as being “diploma mills.”
And a Wikia website identifies Heydarian as president of the “Dominion of Melchizedek,” a so-called “cyber-nation” that allegedly is a haven for banking fraud.
It's unclear whether Hill has Nebraska connections or whether he is a Nebraska admiral. Heydarian and Hill could not be reached for comment.
Hein said Jammeh's certificate was mailed to Heydarian at the coffee shop address in February, although it was dated Sept. 10 as requested.
Last month, the certificate was delivered to Jammeh by a representative of the International Parliament for Safety and Peace, an Italian organization that has drawn criticism for recognizing diploma mills.
The group also passed along two other “awards” to Jammeh, purportedly from President Barack Obama. A U.S. State Department official said Friday that the White House had no connection with those awards.
Jammeh's honors were publicized in the Gambian press and soon drew attention from outside groups. The Committee to Protect Journalists initially was concerned that Obama and others were giving awards to Jammeh but later concluded that no honors were intended.
The admiralship isn't Jammeh's first state award: Kentucky's governor made him an honorary “Kentucky colonel” in 2008.
Giving admiralships is a long-standing tradition for Nebraska governors. Hein said she didn't know how many were awarded under Heineman's predecessor, Mike Johanns, but staff members who worked for both governors told her the pace is about the same.
Nebraska has no process for rescinding the honor, she said.
Staffers try to catch the most questionable nominations, such as those requested for pets, Hein said. Otherwise, she said, little investigation is done, and few requests are denied. Nominations from current admirals are automatically approved.
“I don't know if it's always going to be automatic now,” Hein said.
“There are going to be some people that game the system, but that is not something we endorse. We are relying on the good faith practices of Nebraskans and of those nominating their fellow citizens.”
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