LINCOLN — As an entrepreneur, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning stands apart from his peers in surrounding states.
The Republican front-runner in Nebraska's U.S. Senate race has owned parts of at least 17 limited liability companies, nearly all since he was first elected attorney general in late 2002.
While he divested himself from most of the ventures in preparation for his Senate campaign, he continues to own significant stakes in several banks, two storage unit companies and two retirement communities. Along the way, he built a net worth that he puts between $4 million and $5 million.
None of the attorneys general in the states surrounding Nebraska has ownership holdings comparable to Bruning's, based on their personal financial disclosures.
Bruning is also alone among Nebraska's constitutional officers in having extensive private business holdings.
While Bruning says he has followed the law and has done nothing unethical, his business involvement has been a campaign issue. It was raised again during this week's GOP Senate debate, sponsored by The World-Herald.
In response to a question about whether the candidates' opponents had potential weaknesses as the GOP nominee, State Treasurer Don Stenberg pointed out how rare Bruning's business success is for a Nebraska public official.
“He's become wealthy while serving as our attorney general,” Stenberg said.
“We've had some officeholders who became wealthy before they entered public service and some who became wealthy after they left,” Stenberg said. “But Jon Bruning is the only one who has become wealthy while serving in a major public office in Nebraska in my lifetime.”
Stenberg accused Bruning of having a conflict of interest because of his investments in the banking industry and questioned Bruning's co-ownership of a lake house with two top Nelnet executives. The house was purchased about a year after Bruning tried to help Nelnet avoid a $1 million settlement fee over the student loan company's business practices.
“Right now he's investigating possible illegal conduct by members and officials of the State Banking Department, and yet those same officials regulate the banks that he owns,” Stenberg said. “To me, that's a clear conflict of interest, and I think we'll hear a lot about that from the (Bob) Kerrey campaign or at least the Democrats.”
According to disclosure forms filed by other constitutional officers in Nebraska for 2011, Gov. Dave Heineman reported owning shares of stock in Berkshire Hathaway, eBay, Principal Financial Group, Apple, Citigroup, Google and Amgen. He also reported owning a rental house in Fremont. (He said this week that he no longer owns Berkshire stock.)
Stenberg reported income from renting a condominium in Naples, Fla. He also owned shares of stock in two publicly traded companies, Level 3 Communications and Point Blank Solutions, and his wife, Sue, is on the board of directors for Western Integrated Seed, a family farming business that produces hybrid seed on a contract basis.
Secretary of State John Gale and State Auditor Mike Foley reported no outside business holdings or rental properties.
Among attorneys general in neighboring states, those in Missouri and South Dakota reported partial ownership in one company each.
The Kansas attorney general reported outside income from two rental properties and a 240-acre farm.
Their peers in Iowa and Colorado reported no such investments.
Wyoming Attorney General Greg Phillips, whose position is appointed by the governor, isn't required to disclose personal investments because his state's requirements apply only to elected officials. Phillips didn't return messages seeking comment.
Bruning declined an interview request for this article, but in an April 12 interview, he called his business holdings “passive investments,” saying he is not active in their day-to-day operations. He leaves their management to associates who, in some cases, are also longtime friends.
Bruning emphasized that he has always reported his investments and business involvements to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission.
He has filed a state financial interest report every year since 1996, when he was elected to the Legislature. The reports confirm that he has disclosed his many limited liability companies throughout the years, although not always in a timely fashion.
In 2007, Bruning sent two letters to the commission setting the record straight on his ownership of seven companies, including one that had not been reported for eight years.
Frank Daley, executive director of the commission, said such voluntary corrections are common and generally don't result in action by the commission.
Bruning has said the delayed reports were unintentional.
He also has said he seeks to insulate himself from conflicts by minimizing his knowledge of what his companies are doing.
“I was never hugely involved, but at this point I'm really not involved at all,” he said.
The National Association of Attorneys General does not track the outside commercial activities of its members, said Brandi Green, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based group. Nor does the association publish written guidelines for such activities.
When attorneys general engage in business outside their public positions, it raises two key questions, said Deborah Rhode, director of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford University.
“Both in time commitments and conflicts of interest,” said Rhode, a leading scholar on legal ethics.
Citizens can reasonably expect an attorney general to do the public's business first, attending to personal ventures in off time, Rhode said. In addition, an attorney general should be vigilant about potential conflicts where official duties and business interests might intersect.
Attorneys should publicly declare such conflicts and recuse themselves from decisions or actions that could directly affect their business holdings, she added.
When asked whether she knew of other attorneys general with private business involvements, Rhode said: “This is a new one for me.”
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