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Legislature
Audit finds that director of Nebraska agency took 'questionable' trips in state vehicle

LINCOLN — A new audit harshly criticizes the director of a state agency, stating that he took five “questionable” trips that appear to violate laws on the personal use of state vehicles and the filing of false expense reports.

The allegations against Jeff Fassett, who has been director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources for the past four years, are being investigated by the Governor’s Office and have been forwarded to the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office for possible prosecution. The 65-page audit covered July 2017 through December 2018.

Fassett, who maintains a home in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and has an apartment in Lincoln, recently reimbursed the state $708 for overpayment of travel expenses that he said were identified in the report.

He declined to comment Monday on why the travel logs and expense reports he filed were inaccurate and instead issued a statement saying that agency officials are “supporting the Governor Office’s review of the audit, and are working with them to put in place the necessary controls to properly manage and pre-audit travel reimbursement.”

Gov. Pete Ricketts, who hired Fassett, also issued a statement through a spokesman saying he took the findings of the State Auditor’s Office “seriously.”

“The governor has ordered a full review of the audit findings,” said Ricketts’ spokesman, Taylor Gage.

Gage added that after Fassett’s wife, who still lives in Cheyenne, was diagnosed with cancer last spring, he was authorized to work remotely from Wyoming so he could support her “as long as it did not impact job performance.”

There was no mention of that in the audit, which said the possible law and policy violations included official misconduct, improper use of a state vehicle, improper use of a state credit card for fuel and food and falsification of a state travel log.

The Department of Natural Resources is a state agency with a $35 million annual budget and more than 100 employees. It manages the use of the state’s surface water, oversees dam safety and compliance with river compacts, and — with the state’s local natural resources districts — helps regulate the use of groundwater. Fassett is paid $152,000 a year.

There were five “questionable” trips by Fassett cited in the audit, which found that he had made 24 trips to Wyoming during an 18-month period.

One trip, for example, was in July 2017, when Fassett claimed to have driven 993 miles in a state vehicle from Lincoln to Kimball, Nebraska, then back to Lincoln. That was about 233 miles in excess of the actual mileage between the two cities, the audit report said.

Fassett, when confronted by auditors, admitted that the travel log was wrong. He said he had instead driven to his home in Cheyenne on July 12, 2017, then to Fort Collins, Colorado, the next day for a personal doctor’s appointment. Then, he said, he drove back to Lincoln. That, the audit said, amounted to about 587 miles in a state car for personal activities.

Fassett said that en route to Kimball, his meeting there had been canceled. But the auditors examined travel logs and concluded that he could not have arrived in Kimball until 8 p.m., which they described as “an unusually late time to start a governmental meeting.” Auditors were also unable to confirm, after talking with a natural resources district official in Kimball, whether any meeting had been set up that day at all.

Fassett’s activities on that trip, the audit said, “give rise to serious concerns regarding apparent violation of both specific departmental policies and state law.”

Personal use of a state-owned vehicle is prohibited, according to state policies, and can result in dismissal.

The audit also criticized the agency for setting up a $15 million water project fund that is managed by a private entity and operates “outside of any meaningful governmental oversight.” Auditors said that state law requires such funds to be held by the State Treasurer’s Office and invested by the state investment officer and that they could find nothing in state law that allowed the private “outside account” to be set up.

The agency, in its formal response to the audit, said auditors had “misunderstood or misinterpreted” the Basin Coalition Fund, which was set up before Fassett’s arrival and is managed by the nonprofit Nebraska Community Foundation.

The audit also asserted that the fund would have realized about five times more in earnings — $837,495 instead of the “comparatively meager” $150,034 — had it been invested by the state investment officer rather than the Community Foundation from 2015 through 2018.

The fund was set up after being reviewed by attorneys, the agency said in its response. The fund is used to pay a contractor, the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District, to conduct programs to comply with a Platte River recovery plan. It is not “a department account,” the agency said, because it accepts money from several local natural resources districts.

The agency also disputed the audit’s contention that the existence of the fund was not disclosed during the audit or to state legislators via the department’s annual reports but said it would consult again with the Attorney General’s Office about the fund.


Plus
ANATOMY OF A SHOOTING: A THREE-PART SERIES
Grace: Shootings decline as Omaha steps up violence prevention efforts
BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Dr. Charity Evans, a trauma surgeon, speaks to youths who participate in the Dusk to Dawn program, including Matthew Bose, center, 15, at the Nebraska Medical Center. Dusk to Dawn is a youth violence prevention program.

This is the third in a three-part series analyzing what this single non-fatal shooting — an event that happened 100 times last year in Omaha — says about larger issues confronting the city. For more on why we're writing, read the story behind the story, here.

* * *

Fifteen adolescents crowd around a gurney inside the Nebraska Medical Center ER.

The trauma surgeon holds up a picture of the deceased.

“This is Roberto Gonzalez. He grew up a lot like you guys,” Dr. Charity Evans tells them, and the youths crane their necks to see the framed photograph of Roberto. They don’t know this man who died at age 20, after being shot on a street corner in South Omaha. Two men, ages 19 and 20, were convicted in his murder.

But there is something about the tilt of his Chicago Bulls ball cap, the casual way he’s looking at his iPhone that makes Roberto so familiar, an Everyman in the sad tale of Omaha shootings.

Dr. Evans then seeks a volunteer to lie on the gurney as she tells more of Roberto’s story — like how he liked dinosaurs, how he went to South High and how he went down the wrong road.

She introduces the group to terms like “Trauma Bay 3” and tools like a rib-spreader, an F-shaped piece of metal that was used in an unsuccessful attempt to save Roberto’s life. She holds up a 1-liter bottle and says Roberto “lost four of these,” almost his entire blood volume.

BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Dr. Charity Evans is a trauma surgeon who cared for R.J. Eckhardt, 13, who was mistakenly targeted and shot in the arm on March 29.

She walks them through the waste of human life: Roberto on a street corner. A bullet to the heart. An ambulance ride to the med center. A pronouncement of death after 11 minutes. A devastated mother and sister.

“We did all we could do to save his life,” she tells them. “He died with no one around. Just us.”

Welcome to Dusk to Dawn. It’s a 2½-hour anti-violence program that’s one part scare-’em-straight, one part Anger Management 101 and one part parental plea. The presentation winds up with Roberto’s own mother describing what it’s like to lose a son to gun violence.

“You guys are here. You guys are alive,” Raquel Salinas tells this group from north Omaha’s Hope Center. Their ages range from 11 to 15. They are practically children, but Raquel, the mother, and Charity, the doctor, know that the clock begins ticking long before youths reach Roberto’s age.

“The choice,” Raquel says to them, “is yours to make.”

* * *

How does a city stop the bullets?

It’s a question that has vexed Omaha policymakers, community leaders and those most in proximity to gun violence.

A dozen years ago, Nebraska had one of the highest black homicide rates in the nation, driven largely by violence in Omaha. Last year, the city’s homicide rate fell dramatically to a nearly 30-year low. That seems to indicate that efforts to tackle the issue have found some success.

This year appears on track to be even better: Five gun-related homicides through May compared to nine during the same period last year. Nonfatal shooting victims total 24 through May. The same period last year there were 42.

Even though the numbers are down, people are still being killed or injured in shootings, and each of those events has a ripple effect through families, neighborhoods and communities.

Just being in proximity to violence places one at risk. There is psychological trauma that results from being close to gunfire. And direct experiences with violence can make one more prone to being a victim or a perpetrator of it. Shootings are costly, a tab often picked up by the public for unpaid medical care and the extra work by police work and justice system.

Whether a shooting kills someone, like Roberto Gonzalez, who died in 2015, or injures someone, like 13-year-old R.J. Eckhardt in March, it’s worth considering what has worked to stem violence. R.J. was shot in the arm in what police are calling a case of mistaken identity involving rival gangs. Five teens were arrested in connection with the shooting. The story of R.J.’s shooting has been told in The World-Herald over the past three days.

Grace: Who shot R.J.? The story of a 13-year-old boy who got caught in the middle of a 'gang battle'

It raises questions about how a community can reduce the chances of that happening. Here’s what Omaha has been trying:

» A beefed-up Omaha police gang unit with officers acting almost like social workers at times, trying to line up troubled youths with supports and even moving one family outside Omaha. There’s also an effort to improve communication between the gang unit and juvenile probation. Omaha Police Sgt. Aaron Hanson says structure and consistency are the best ways to keep youths out of trouble.

» A beefed-up summer jobs program that in its 12th year will put up to 900 teens and young adults in job training and paid employment. The Step-Up program run by the Empowerment Network, a community revitalization organization, has waiting lists for spots. This summer, Step-Up is planning to serve more young people than ever — thanks, in part, to the City of Omaha’s $1 million in support and a new grant from the Obama Foundation. Step-Up targets 14- to 21-year-olds from low-income households. Participants receive job training and summer jobs. That and a healthier economy has had results: Unemployment for black Omahans age 20 to 24 has fallen over the past decade, from 27.5 percent to 12.5 percent.

» Better police-community relations, as evidenced in weekly information-sharing sessions through Omaha 360, an anti-violence group that aims to give a snapshot of what’s happening in some of the city’s toughest parts of town. This is an Empowerment Network effort, now almost a decade old. The collaboration is focused on reducing gun and gang violence and says it has seen results. The one-hour meetings include updates from police brass and neighborhood and nonprofit leaders.

» An array of youth-focused organizations offer structure, sports, college prep and job training.

This is not new; groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs of Omaha and Girls Inc. have existed in some form for decades, providing a safe place to go with wholesome things to do. Girls Inc. just added a housing component for young women.

The Omaha Police Athletics for Community Engagement program, which started in 2005, now has 1,500 youths in soccer in north and South Omaha, 300-plus in baseball and several dozen in flag football. Police officers serve as volunteer coaches, and the organization has added tutoring and other programs.

NorthStar is an outreach program for minority boys, in grades three through 12. The group is expanding its building near 50th Street and Ames Avenue. It offers free ACT prep, as well as outdoor activities and lacrosse.

Anti-gang groups Metro Area Youth Services and YouTurn offer a range of programming. Metro Area Youth Services also provides day and evening reporting services for offenders, gang intervention and family support. And every summer, the group takes rival gang members to Colorado together for a camping trip.

YouTurn focuses on 12- to 24-year-olds under a model that treats violence like a disease. YouTurn focuses on detection, intervention and treating the highest-risk cases first through neighborhood and school-level collaborations. YouTurn also offers referrals for behavioral health, health care, mentoring, employment and job placement classes.

Mary Visek, chief probation officer for Douglas County Juvenile Probation, says the next step is to start “farther upstream” than the juvenile justice system.

Visek says she has no silver-bullet remedy but rattled off some ways she thinks the system could better serve at-risk youths: More home-based services with quality therapists who can help alleviate family stress and address root issues, more “therapeutic foster homes” with specially trained foster parents, inpatient mental health facilities that won’t reject aggressive youths as some currently do.

She says her approach is: What would I want for my kid?

Grace: 3 of the suspects in Omaha boy's shooting faced trouble at home, with the law

* * *

Omaha’s efforts now include targeting the problem as a public health issue, and Evans is a leader on that front. She launched Dusk to Dawn in 2017. The program, held at the Nebraska Medical Center, has served 400 youths so far. Evans does the initial teaching in the ER and then turns the lesson over to Stewart Giddings of YouTurn.

Evans says it’s important to have a “credible messenger” for an anti-violence message to resonate. The trauma surgeon can walk youths through the medical steps taken once the ambulance leaves the curb. But the words of someone like Giddings, who has life experiences that might be familiar to the youths, have a higher chance of resonating.

BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Stewart Giddings, operations director of YouTurn, shares his personal experiences with youth who participate in the Dusk to Dawn program at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. 

The “credible messenger” is so important that the role is a vital part of a new anti-violence program Evans hopes to launch this summer at the Nebraska Medical Center. The program would aim to provide an array of social services to victims of violence treated there.

Last year, the Nebraska Medical Center ER served 275 victims of violence. Evans is anticipating a $350,000 grant to provide 100 victims six months of mental health, substance abuse and material services such as housing, food assistance or job help.

She will focus on victims who are at highest risk of being hurt again. These would include victims with a previous history of being injured from violence and victims with a history of incarceration or gang ties.

BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Stewart Giddings, operations director of YouTurn, asks questions of youths who participate in the Dusk to Dawn program at the Nebraska Medical Center.

Evans says it’s important to understand gun violence as a disease and tackle it the way society has with diabetes, cancer and other chronic illnesses by focusing on cause and effect. She says gun violence prevention works the same: Spending upfront on activities or supports is a lot cheaper than letting circumstances play out.

“In my mind, there is no argument. The cost of injury far exceeds the cost of prevention or intervention,” she says. “Violence is stigmatized as a separate disorder when, in actuality ... there are reasons why violence occurs and there are (ways) we can prevent it.”

* * *

The Dusk to Dawn action might begin in the dramatic ER, but the real action happens in a boring conference room upstairs.

The 15 youths, accompanied on this occasion by adults including Hope Center staff, Omaha police gang interventionists and Deputy Police Chief Ken Kanger, grab chips and pop and take their spots around a large table.

First, youths fill out a survey about how much or little they agree with statements like: It makes you feel big and tough when you push someone around, or carrying a gun or knife makes people feel powerful and strong.

BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Tyrell Tealer, a staff member of the Hope Center, assists Matthew Bose, 15, with an anonymous questionnaire as local youth participate in the Dusk to Dawn program at the Nebraska Medical Center. 

They fill out another survey asking about race, education, their living situation, gang affiliation, arrest history, drug use and other risky behaviors. They are asked to list three “safe and caring adults in your life” and three “safe places you can go if you need to be away from a high-risk place or situation.”

Then, they hear from Giddings, a New York City native who saw his friend shot and killed in front of him. Giddings ran through a dramatic biography: Born in New York City. Dabbled in drugs at age 12. Joined a gang at age 14. Engaged in fights, “I’m talking shootings, I’m talking stabbings.” Then he watched his friend and fellow corner dope-slinger shot and killed. Right in front of him.

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Giddings wound up on the right path, and that’s part of the lesson: You can escape your circumstances. One bad choice does not have to determine your future.

But as compelling as Giddings’ story is, he keeps the focus on the youths in the room. What do they dream about? What do they value? How can they lose that?

He walks them through emotional triggers: What makes you angry? What do you do when someone insults you? Would your family expect you to fight back?

He explains emotions, especially anger. Then he has the youths share what they could do about their anger, instead of popping off.

Sleep, says one youth. Eat, says another. Break a glass, says a third.

A fourth shared what she does: “Cry myself to sleep.”

No one in the room is older than 15. One girl brags about being tougher than the boys in her gang. One girl can’t think of any dreams.

BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Youths share their goals while participating in the Dusk to Dawn program at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

Some try to shrug off the sadness of what they have just revealed by goofing off and laughing.

Then it is Raquel Salinas’ turn. Quietly, the mother of the late Roberto Gonzalez tells the youths her son’s birthday is coming up in a week.

“That’s the hardest time,” she says, and her eyes widen. The room goes silent. “He should have been celebrating his birthday.”

The hope, of course, is that the 15 youths in the room will have many more birthdays ahead of them.

But there’s no way to ensure that. Complex problems don’t have easy answers. One 2½-hour class won’t be the magic elixir to solving gun violence in Omaha.

Sitting in the hospital conference room, Edward King III, a 35-year-old program director at the Hope Center, considers what he’s learned about gun violence. Friends of his have been murdered. Friends have gone to jail. Generational poverty can be a curse. Society might be tempted to throw up our collective hands and to say, it’s too big and too hard.

“It’s so easy to complain about the problem,” he says. “But I feel, ‘What are we doing to be part of the solution?’ ”

His answer to reducing gun violence is pretty simple, a strategy boiled down into just two words: Show up.

Show up for your family, your neighborhood, your community. Be present in the lives of youngsters. Show that you care.

Photos: Youths participate in the Dusk to Dawn program

Articles
Central Americans pursue u.s. dream despite Mexico's crackdown

SAN MARCOS, Guatemala (AP) - A near-death experience in the Arizona desert a year ago won't deter Francisco Pérez from another attempt to migrate to the U.S., nor will an increased police presence in southern Mexico.

The 23-year-old Guatemalan teacher and auto mechanic hopes to set out again soon to repay the $7,000 he owes from his first trip, when he and two other young men got lost for a week in the desert before being rescued by the U.S. border patrol. On the seventh day, facing severe dehydration, the group resorted to drinking their own urine.

"Each of us urinated in a bottle and then strained it with the corner of our pants," said Perez, recalling the day he thought would be his last.

Perez spent two days in a U.S. hospital before being returned to Guatemala. During his short stay in Arizona, though, he caught a glimpse of houses with manicured lawns, orderly roads and fancy stores. Those images are like a siren's song, calling him to what he believes would be a better life.

Before setting out for the U.S., he earned $100 a month as a teacher and had a girlfriend. Now she is with somebody else and he's helping out in his father's auto repair shop in his hometown of San Marcos, just a few miles from the border with Mexico.

"In the end I lost everything," Perez said.

Mexico has promised to deploy 6,000 National Guard troops to its southern border to deter Central Americans from trekking toward the American dream. About 1 percent of Guatemala's population of about 16 million people have left the country this year, part of a wave of Central Americans fleeing poverty, violence and drought.

U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehended 132,887 migrants in May, the highest monthly figure in more than a decade. Many Central American migrants in recent months have been requesting asylum. Mexico has accepted more than 10,000 U.S. asylum seekers since January under a program that requires migrants to wait in Mexico while their cases wind through U.S. courts. Thousands of Central Americans have also applied for asylum to start new lives in Mexico.

On Friday, Mexican officials vowed to step up migration enforcement to avoid U.S. tariffs on all Mexican imports. Increased enforcement could mean more inspections of buses, raids on hotels and arrests to disrupt people-smuggling networks. Last week, Mexico arrested two migration activists and froze the accounts of more than two dozen people alleged to have organized caravans.

"We are really in front of a humanitarian tragedy," Mexico's ambassador to the U.S., Martha Bárcena, told CBSNews' "Face the Nation" on Sunday.

Most Central American migrants come from rural areas, Bárcena noted, suggesting that Mexico and the U.S. should work together to address the root causes of migration rather than just enforcement.

Not far from San Marcos, in the mountain hamlet of La Unión Los Mendoza, about a third of residents have migrated, according to community leader Genaro Méndez. The rural town of 600 families has dirt roads that turn to mud during the rainy season. Most of its people subsist on beans, corn and other food that they can grow. Most homes lack running water.

Méndez himself spent 18 years working in the U.S. as an electrician. He decided to remain in San Marcos after he was deported for a second time, in 2016.

Now, young men from this indigenousMam community come to the 43-year-old Méndez for advice on how to make it up north.

"The laws are a little hard" in the U.S., he tells them. "They don't receive you well."

And the journey itself is wrought with perils. "It's not, grab your backpack and go," Méndez warns.

Two Honduran migrants told the Associated Press on Sunday that they were robbed by Mexican officials of the little cash they had while on a bridge between Guatemala and Mexico. The migrants jumped into the Suchiate River to flee from the officials, who they said confiscated their identification documents, beat them and asked them for bribes to pass into Mexico.

"There's tremendous corruption here," said one of the men, Jose Romero, fighting back tears. "It's sad to see all the Central American countries, instead of being united and helping us, they take the little that we have."

Romero said that his hometown of San Pedro Sula has become too violent and that work there is scarce. He said he'd take asylum from Mexico or any other country willing to offer him refuge.

"We're honest, clean people, determined to work," Romero said.

Back in Pérez's hometown of San Marcos, there are restaurants, schools, stores and a picturesque central plaza rimmed by misty mountains. But the money he can earn there, he said, would be barely enough to get by. Grinding poverty sends many in Guatemala in search of higher incomes in the U.S. Pérez's own father lived in the U.S. for nine years before being deported.

"I'm not going to lie, when I left the desert, I left with fear," Pérez said. "I said, 'I'm not coming back here.' "

But a year later, he's trying to make financial arrangements to set out again.

Buses roll out of San Marcos every day from stations lined with backpacks for sale to those making the journey north. Because Pérez hopes to secure a job in the U.S. that allows him to send money back to his aging parents, he tunes out warnings of an increased police presence in Mexico.


News
After decades as an Omaha mainstay, Gerda's German Restaurant and Bakery to close this month

Gerda’s German Restaurant and Bakery, a mainstay at 52nd and Leavenworth, is closing later this month, the owners announced Sunday on Facebook.

The closing comes a year after the death of Gerda Bailey, the namesake and longtime owner of the business.

“This was not an easy decision for any of us,” Bailey’s daughter, Kim Reefe, said Monday. “I grew up in the bakery. A lot of the staff has been there for a long time. Their kids have grown up in the bakery. We understand the significance of closing.”

The restaurant’s last day will be June 22.

Gerda, who died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at age 83, had hoped to find a buyer for the business. So had her family, Reefe said.

Reefe said that since her mother died, the family learned that the restaurant, which has been in its current location for more than 40 years, had been grandfathered in on a number of things that, if a new buyer took over, would have to be brought up to code. They decided to keep running the bakery, and did, just as it had been.

“We were able to keep the employees and keep the bakery open,” she said.

The bakery is beloved for its doughnuts, glazed twists, pecan rolls and wedding cakes, plus such German fare as sauerbraten and schnitzel.

At the end of February, the family had to move the liquor license out of Gerda Bailey’s name, and that required inspections from the Health and Fire Departments.

The family started to put price tags on what needed to be improved and realized that some expensive equipment also needed to be replaced.

“It was a culmination of everything,” Reefe said. “My mom ran the place with her heart, and she took a very tiny salary. We paid everyone, and paid our bills, and that’s how we continued to operate. We didn’t have a lot of money to work with.”

She said the family tried to come up with other ideas to support the bakery.

“It just didn’t turn out for us,” she said. “We are thankful that we had another year.”

Barry James of Sweetbriar Syndicate owns the property. Reefe said Sweetbriar has plans for the building, but he didn’t elaborate on what might happen.

Over the years, Gerda’s Oktoberfest celebrations, which started with a grill and four tables outside the restaurant 20 years ago, became standing-room-only affairs.

Reefe said the family would love to play host to one more event.

“If at all possible, we would love to do it,” she said. “We would do one last Oktoberfest for the community.”

Gerda’s is at 5180 Leavenworth St. Its hours until it closes will be Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. For more information, visit facebook.com/Gerdas-German-Restaurant-and-Bakery-210629088998700.

Photos: After more than 40 years, Gerda's German Restaurant and Bakery says goodbye