LINCOLN — When it comes to gifts, Gov. Dave Heineman gets plenty of green, as in greens fees.
State records indicate that Heineman, an avid golfer, has reported receiving 112 free rounds of golf as gifts from business executives, friends and lobbyists over the past four years.
The Republican governor said he enjoys golf and uses it, as well as attendance at sporting events, for relaxation, not to talk about politics or legislation.
The outings included 11 rounds at exclusive golf resorts in Nebraska's Sand Hills and several others at Omaha country clubs with a “Who's Who” of Omaha business leaders. But Heineman rejected criticism that the gifts bought his golf partners any special access or influence.
“The people who I play golf with know there's one thing I focus on and that's my golf game,” the governor said. “Maybe something will be mentioned casually about an issue, but if you want to talk in detail, I'll say, 'Let's make an appointment later.' ”
The rounds of golf, which are allowable gifts under state ethics rules, were among those contained in annual reports filed by the governor, including a recent report filed for 2012 gifts.
Such gifts have generated controversy in the past. Former Gov. Mike Johanns accepted an eight-day cruise to Alaska aboard a private yacht and a 10-day Hawaiian vacation from wealthy businessmen during his 1999-2005 term.
The University of Nebraska got into hot water after it gave then-Gov. Ben Nelson a $90 watch to commemorate the Huskers' 1996 Orange Bowl win. The gift violated a ban on lobbyists providing gifts worth more than $50 a month to state lawmakers or constitutional officers.
As for golf, President Barack Obama got verbally roughed up last summer after logging his 100th round of golf during his term. Heineman, a frequent critic of Obama's politics, said he has no complaints about the president's time on the links.
“He needs some free time, too,” Heineman said.
Jack Gould, a representative of the political watchdog group Common Cause, said he gives Heineman credit for reporting all gifts he receives, even those that fall under the state's required reporting threshold — gifts worth more than $100.
But Gould questioned whether discussions on the golf course might include lobbying for bills and government contracts. And he sees no reason why business leaders should pay the governor's greens fees.
Gould said such gifts set up “an attitude of gratitude” and appear to demonstrate that the wealthy and powerful have special access to the state's top official.
“It's not like you're playing with kids or family, you're playing with people who have an interest in government,” Gould said. “People don't give you things without expecting something in return.”
Heineman rejected the notion that the golf rounds grant special access or influence. He pointed out that he was on the opposite side of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and other business groups in proposing tax reforms this year, and that most “elites” favored benefits for illegal immigrants, which he has opposed.
“I stood with regular Nebraska on that,” the governor said.
As for access, Heineman said he does not know of “a single person” who had not been granted a meeting with him or the appropriate state government official during his terms in office.
Under state accountability and disclosure laws, elected officials must report by April 1 of each year any gifts they receive worth more than $100. Gifts of admission, to events such as University of Nebraska football games, can exceed the $100 limit. Gifts from relatives also are exempt from the reporting requirements.
By contrast, Iowa is among the states that ban nearly all gifts; only small gifts worth less than $3 can be kept. By law, Gov. Terry Branstad can accept larger gifts — such as T-shirts, ball caps and wooden shoes from Pella, Iowa — but he cannot use them personally, his spokesman said.
Last fall the governor and his family were offered the use of a furnished apartment in Des Moines after black mold forced them out of the Iowa governor's mansion for several weeks. Branstad was able to use the apartment, but only after it was cleared by state ethics officials, spokesman Tim Albrecht said.
In Nebraska, Heineman reports about 300 gifts a year. But the vast majority are worth less than $100, which he does not, by law, have to report.
The list last year included 55 books, ranging from “Renewing the American Dream” and “Eat Mor Chikin: Inspire More People” to “The Debt Bomb” and “Adam: The First Man Was Bisexual.” He reads some, but donates many to libraries.
The governor received several T-shirts, sweatshirts and polo shirts, which he said were often “thank you” presents for visiting a community or a business.
“It would be impolite and inappropriate not to accept such gifts,” Heineman said.
A National Guard Ag Development team gave him a Nebraska flag that was flown over a post in Afghanistan. The State Capitol Commission gave him a State Capitol Christmas ornament. The anti-Keystone XL pipeline group Bold Nebraska, which has accused Heineman of flip-flopping on the pipeline, presented him with a pair of flip-flop sandals.
“I just report everything so everyone knows exactly what I receive,” Heineman said.
There were also plenty of political gifts for the governor, a former executive director of the state Republican Party: 25 complimentary tickets to fundraisers and two plane rides to campaign for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Ohio and Colorado.
The governor received free flights to attend events sponsored by the National Governors Association, which he chaired through mid-2012, in Seattle, Williamsburg, Va., and Washington, D.C.
The governor also took an $8,200 chartered flight to a Blue Cross Blue Shield national association dinner in Phoenix. That trip, which was paid for by 28 Blue Cross Blue Shield affiliates across the country, was one of eight the governor received worth more than $1,000 in 2012.
The March trip to Phoenix came a month after the decision to drop Nebraska Blue Cross Blue Shield as the state's health insurance provider.
Andy Williams, a spokesman for Blue Cross, said the governor was invited in his role as chairman of the governors group to discuss U.S. governors' concerns about health-care reform. The invitation was issued long before the state announced plans to change health insurance providers, he said.
In 2012, Heineman also received two free memberships to private golf clubs, Hillcrest Country Club in Lincoln and Champions Run in Omaha, as well as 23 rounds of golf, including four trips to the exclusive Sand Hills Club in central Nebraska, south of Mullen.
Some of the governor's golf partners read like a “Who's Who” of the Omaha business community: Rex Fisher and George Little of engineering firm HDR; commercial real estate developer John Lund; Chris Kircher of ConAgra Foods; former U.S. senator, attorney and lobbyist Dave Karnes; bankers Chris Murphy and Jeff Schmid; Bruce Grewcock of Peter Kiewit Sons' Inc.; Dan Neary of Mutual of Omaha, and Jim Young of Union Pacific.
Tonn Ostergaard of Lincoln's Crete Carriers and Carl Sjulin of Lincoln's West Gate Bank also provided free golf, as did Mick Jensen, now retired from Blair-based Great Plains Communication.
Also listed was prominent Lincoln lobbyist Walt Radcliffe, a member of Hillcrest Country Club, where the governor has been provided a complimentary membership for years.
The golf buddies, the reports indicated, often split the cost of the governor's most expensive rounds, chipping in $50 each. That would bring them in line with a state ban on registered lobbyists handing out gifts larger than $50 per month. However, only a couple of Heineman's golfing partners are registered lobbyists.
A few years ago, the Legislature considered a proposal to increase the lobbyist's monthly gift limit, due in part to the rising cost of a round of golf.
Radcliffe said he enjoys playing golf with the governor because he's an excellent player. He said that while it does enhance his relationship with Heineman, the purpose is not business.
“If you were to use that time to talk business, it would defeat the purpose of going out to golf,” Radcliffe said. “That doesn't mean that afterwards there might be some things I need to talk to him about.”
Heineman has made economic development one of his highest priorities, so meeting with business leaders would fit with that goal. He has appointed at least three of his golfing buddies to state posts: Kircher to the State Fair Board, and Fisher and Jensen to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
On the golf course, the governor has game. He shot a 75, only four above par, during a September 2011 golf round at the Sand Hills Club course with U.S. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who is also an avid golfer. By contrast, Boehner shot an 86.
Heineman has not taken a vacation during his eight years as governor, unless you count afternoon golf outings or a trip to an out-of-state Nebraska football game. He said his golf outings are regularly interrupted by official phone calls.
“I realize as governor, I'm on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” he said.
Correction: Dave Heineman said he realizes that he's on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. An earlier version of this story misquoted the governor.
Correction: Former U.S. Sen. Dave Karnes is an attorney and lobbyist in Omaha. A previous version of this story incorrectly said he's still affiliated with The Scoular Co., which he is not.
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