Papillion State Sen. Jim Smith said Friday it could be September before a state commission considers allegations he failed to fully report benefits received during an October 2012 trip to the Canadian province of Alberta.
Smith said he made the trip at the invitation of the government of Alberta in order to view the facilities that are extracting crude oil from tar sands.
That oil would eventually be transported via pipeline across Nebraska and south to Texas if the controversial Keystone XL pipeline ultimately wins approval from President Barack Obama.
Smith said he personally paid the cost of his flight to and from Calgary, Alberta, and also paid the cost of his hotel room.
He said he also paid for most of his meals, and those that he did not were within the limits of what Nebraska lawmakers are permitted to accept.
But a complaint filed with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission alleges that Smith failed to disclose the value of an airplane flight provided by the government of Alberta. That flight took Smith and other participants to and from the tar sands he had been invited to tour.
The Center for Media and Democracy, an organization that has actively opposed construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, filed the complaint after reporting that information provided by the Alberta government placed the value of the intra-Alberta flight at $1,466.67.
Smith said it was his understanding that flights provided by the Alberta government after he reached the primary destination were not subject to reporting. He said he is seeking clarification on that issue.
The complaint further alleges that the cost of the intra-Alberta flight was only partially paid by the government of Alberta, and that “evidence suggests” the remainder of the cost was covered by another entity although the identity of that entity is not yet known.
The allegation stems from an email written by an organizer of the trip which states the government of Alberta sponsored “a portion” of the flight to the tar sands facilities.
Smith said that so far as he is aware the flight was sponsored by the government of Alberta and the province’s department of energy.
If officials find that Trans-Canada, the company that is attempting to build the pipeline and is listed in Nebraska as a lobbyist, paid for a portion of the flight, then Smith might have run afoul of a state requirement that senators not receive gifts from lobbyists in excess of $50 a month.
The complaint further alleges that meals provided during the trip were provided by corporate sponsors with an interest in seeing the pipeline completed.
Smith’s commitment to the Keystone XL Pipeline is not in doubt. He is a prominent supporter, and as a member of the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee introduced the bill that diverted the pipeline’s route away from the Nebraska Sand Hills and thus kept the project alive.
The trip to Alberta was designed by the America Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that pairs representatives of the public and private sector. Smith is ALEC’s public sector chairman in Nebraska.
Smith said the organization does not currently have a private sector chairman in the state and that he made the trip independent of ALEC.
The public-private structure of ALEC has drawn complaints that it gives private bodies too much influence over legislators. But Smith said he has always believed that cooperation between the public and private sectors encourages progress.
“I am a free-market, pro-business person who believes the best solutions come when we can have a public-private partnership,” he said.
Smith said he understands, however, that lines can appear to become blurry.
“You cannot avoid all conflicts of interest because we are citizen legislators, but if you can take any steps to avoid it then do so,” he said. “That’s why, when it came to this trip, I decided to pay for my air fare and reimbursed ALEC for my accommodations. I didn’t want that to be considered a gift.”
Smith said he made the trip in an effort to see firsthand the oil-extraction techniques used in Albert. Those techniques had been repeatedly challenged by anti-pipeline activists who testified before his committee.
“My commitment was that the first opportunity I had I would go and look at that myself so that I would know first hand what was going on,” he said.
Smith said he believes the complaint was filed in large part because he is in the “crosshairs” of the Center for Media and Democracy.
He said the organization is a critic of ALEC and of the Keystone XL pipeline, whereas he is a firm supporter of both.
“As I have told others, consider the source,” he said.
But Brendan Fischer, who filed the complaint on behalf of the Center for Media and Democracy, said small failures can grow into big ones, and elected representatives need to be watched closely.
“Legislators are human,” he said. “When they’re given a gift by an interested party, that is going to have the potential of influencing their judgment. As elected officials, their responsibility is to be accountable to their constituents and the people of their state, not to special interests. “