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Battle lines set on Bellevue's controversial misconduct proposals

After two public hearings on two controversial proposals in Bellevue, the battle lines appear to be set.

Half of the Bellevue City Council, along with Mayor Rusty Hike, has said the ordinances are necessary to stop one unnamed councilman from making sexual and derogatory comments toward city employees and other council members.

The city’s three other council members have said they won’t vote for proposals that would give the city the power to punish elected officials who engage in misconduct or who publicly share information from private city meetings.

Those three councilmen say they’re uncomfortable with the city having the ability to remove people from office — one possible consequence for engaging in such behavior.

At Tuesday night’s council meeting, during a second public hearing that lasted more than an hour, many Bellevue residents expressed a similar belief: They don’t condone those types of comments, but they, too, think that an elected official’s removal from office should be done by the people through a regular election or a recall.

The proposals will go before the council for a vote Dec. 3.

Council President Paul Cook, who appears set to support the measures, read aloud a letter he wrote detailing inappropriate comments that either have been reported to the city or city leaders have overheard.

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The remarks included commenting on someone’s weight and making a sexual innuendo to a woman blowing out candles on a birthday cake.

Those inappropriate comments, Cook said, have been made by a council member to city employees and other council members.

The city has said it currently has no recourse to punish elected officials for such behavior.

“It is our responsibility to represent our constituents in a respectful and professional manner,” Cook said.

Council members Don Preister and Kathy Welch also have indicated that they support the ordinances.

If the final vote next month comes to a 3-3 tie, Hike would step in to break it.

Councilmen Thomas Burns, Pat Shannon and Bob Stinson said they plan to vote against it.

“Removing any elected official from the office she or he holds shows a lack of faith in my constituents and the rest of the citizens within Bellevue,” Burns said.

City leaders, including Hike and Jim Ristow, the city administrator, have said fears of the council abusing the ability to remove someone from office are misplaced.

The ordinances set out a series of progressive steps that would start with a written reprimand.

Since the first public meeting on the proposals, the city has tweaked the ordinances to reflect residents’ concerns.

For example, the city administrator will not have the power to issue a reprimand; that will reside with the council.

One of the more heated exchanges of the evening came between Hike and Sarah Centineo, the president of the Bellevue school board.

Centineo, an attorney, expressed concern about the process by which an elected official’s conduct would be scrutinized.

Under the proposal, the elected official in question would go before the council for a hearing. The city attorney would act as prosecuting attorney, with the ability to call and question witnesses.

Centineo pointed to what she called flaws in that setup.

“It’s not a judicial body, so there’s no penalty for perjury,” Centineo said. “There’s no way to enforce witnesses to appear. ... There’s just so many flaws in this system because you don’t have any ways to enforce it.”

Hike: “Well, hopefully we’ll never find out.”

Centineo: “Why implement an ordinance you never want to use?”

Hike then told her that her five minutes to comment were over.

8 local mayors and their salaries

8 local mayors and their salaries

Regents poised to hire Walter 'Ted' Carter as NU's president

Walter “Ted” Carter has just moved from Annapolis, Maryland, to Suffolk, Virginia, and it looks like he will move again soon.

Negotiations evidently have started in the University of Nebraska Board of Regents’ effort to secure Carter as NU’s next president.

“They’re working on contract details with him at this point,” Regent Bob Phares of North Platte said this week.

Phares said interim NU President Susan Fritz will finish the year as leader but Carter might start to transition into the job next month.

Carter, former superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, hardly denied that he’s ready to launch into a new challenge.

He had expected the challenge to be with an East Coast software company, but that changed when he was asked to apply for the NU system’s top job.

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“Obviously, I don’t want to get ahead of what the Board of Regents will do,” Carter said by phone this week. “Nothing’s happened yet. … We’re just making sure that we’re being respectful of the process.”

By state law, the regents had to name only one person as a finalist for the presidency.

A 30-day public review process, ending Sunday, was also required after Carter was named the finalist. The regents’ next regular meeting takes place Dec. 5, and Carter’s confirmation is expected then.

Carter said that his tour through Nebraska during the 30-day review went well and that he and his wife, Lynda, liked what they saw and heard.

Now, he said, he’s reading up on history of the university and Nebraska, including the 2017 book “Atlas of Nebraska.”

Some faculty members in the NU system aren’t delighted about the prospect of Carter’s presidency, but disgruntlement hasn’t been loud. Kevin Hanrahan, president of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Faculty Senate, said views of Carter are mixed.

Among UNL professors who responded this month to a survey about their views of Carter, the most common response was “support with reservations,” Hanrahan said.

The UNL and University of Nebraska at Omaha chapters of the American Association of University Professors expressed concern this week about Carter’s view of leadership. The chapters said in a letter that Carter’s experience is in military, top-down leadership, and not “shared governance (with faculty) at a major state university like NU.”

The letter asks the regents and Carter to permit the appointment of faculty regents. The letter also asks that the four faculty senate presidents (at UNL, UNO, the NU Medical Center and the University of Nebraska at Kearney) be involved in searches for top leadership.

Carter said in a text Thursday that he wants “to make shared governance work” toward “what is best for students and faculty.”

Carter, 60, has no doctorate and didn’t take a conventional path to university leadership. Trained at the famed Top Gun fighter pilot school, Carter holds the American record for the number of landings on aircraft carriers.

The Naval Academy graduate has what amounts to a master’s degree in the Navy’s nuclear power program. In time, he led the Naval War College in Rhode Island, then the academy in Annapolis.

While he was superintendent of the academy, administrators fired a controversial English professor, Bruce Fleming. The AAUP sent Carter a letter saying Fleming hadn’t received a fair hearing under AAUP guidelines.

The AAUP’s opinion carries extra weight at UNL because the organization has officially censured UNL for its dismissal of a graduate student-lecturer in 2018.

Carter has said he respects the AAUP and the importance of academic freedom. He will work to get UNL removed from the censure list, he said.

The reason the Naval Academy conflicted with the AAUP, he said, is that the Navy simply has different protocols and procedures from those of a traditional college. Carter also said another administrator, not him, fired Fleming.

Hanrahan said UNL faculty members are also upset that only two professors (plus two deans and an associate dean) served on the 23-member presidential search committee. Furthermore, he said, the 30-day review process has been inadequate to vet Carter and to submit an opinion that reflects the mixed views at UNL.

But the opinions that matter most are those of the regents, and they have cheered Carter.

“I think he’s going to be phenomenal. He’s a leader’s leader,” Regent Rob Schafer of Beatrice said. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself” over getting Carter, he said.

Regent Elizabeth O’Connor of Omaha said she has been impressed with Carter.

“I like him,” she said. “I think we would be very lucky to get him.”

Regent Barbara Weitz, also of Omaha, said Carter displays leadership, integrity, skill and concern for students’ well-being. Weitz, a member of the presidential search committee, said all the members of that committee liked Carter.

“I think it was a pretty emphatic nomination,” she said.

And Regent Jim Pillen of Columbus said he was pleased by Nebraskans’ response to Carter’s public appearances.

“The response has been thumbs-up,” he said.

Photos: Husker mascots, past and present

Aide says ambassador on 'political errand' for Trump

WASHINGTON (AP) — In riveting testimony, a former national security official declared Thursday that a U.S. ambassador carried out a controversial "domestic political errand" for Donald Trump on Ukraine, an allegation undercutting a main line of the president's defense in the impeachment inquiry.

PHOTO GALLERY: See scenes from Day 5 of the public impeachment hearings in a gallery at the end of this story

Fiona Hill told House investigators she came to realize Ambassador Gordon Sondland wasn't simply operating outside official diplomatic channels, as she and others suspected, but carrying out instructions from Trump.

"He was being involved in a domestic political errand, and we were being involved in national security foreign policy," she testified, "and those two things had just diverged."

Hill's comment followed a blistering back-and-forth during questioning from Republicans at the House hearing.

Testimony from Hill and David Holmes, a State Department adviser in Kyiv, capped an intense week in the historic inquiry and reinforced the central complaint: that Trump used foreign policy for political aims, setting off alarms across the U.S. national security and foreign policy apparatus.

Democrats allege Trump was relying on the discredited idea that Ukraine rather than Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election as he sought investigations in return for two things: U.S. military aid that Ukraine needed to fend off Russian aggression, and a White House visit the new Ukrainian president wanted that would demonstrate his backing from the West.

One by one, Hill, a Russia expert at the White House's National Security Council until this summer, took on Trump's defenses.

She and Holmes both told House investigators it was abundantly clear Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani was pursuing political investigations of Democrats and Joe Biden in Ukraine.

"He was clearly pushing forward issues and ideas that would, you know, probably come back to haunt us and in fact," Hill testified. "I think that's where we are today."

And Hill stood up for Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the Army officer who testified earlier and whom Trump's allies tried to discredit." He remains at the White House National Security Council.

At one point, Republicans interjected, trying to cut off Hill's response as she flipped the script during the afternoon of questioning. The GOP lawmakers had been trying to highlight her differences with Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union who delivered damaging testimony Wednesday about what he said was Trump's "quid pro quo" pursuit of the political investigations.

"You may not like the witness' answer, but we will hear it," said Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the committee.

The Republican lawmakers eventually wound down their questions but continued with mini-speeches decrying the impeachment effort. Democrats, in turn, criticized Trump's actions.

Hill, a former aide to then-national security adviser John Bolton, sternly warned Republican lawmakers — and implicitly Trump — to quit pushing a "fictional" narrative that Ukraine, rather than Russia, interfered in U.S. elections.

Trump has told others testifying in the inquiry that Ukraine tried to "take me down" in the 2016 election. Republicans launched their questioning Thursday reviving those theories.

Hill declared: "I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternative narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016."

Her testimony also raised fresh questions whether Bolton, who has yet to defy White House orders for officials not to testify, would appear in the inquiry. In what was seen as a nudge to her former boss, Hill said those with information have a "moral obligation to provide it."

The landmark House impeachment inquiry was sparked by a July 25 phone call, in which Trump asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for investigations into Biden and the Democratic National Committee. A still-anonymous whistleblower's official government complaint about that call led the House to launch the current probe.

Hill and Holmes both filled in gaps in previous testimony and poked holes in the accounts of other witnesses. They were particularly adamant that efforts by Trump and Giuliani to investigate the Burisma company were well-known by officials working on Ukraine to be the equivalent of probing the Bidens. That runs counter to earlier testimony from Sondland and Kurt Volker, the former Ukraine special envoy, who insisted they had no idea there was a connection.

Holmes, a late addition to the schedule, also undercut some of Sondland's recollections about an extraordinary phone call between the ambassador and Trump on July 26, the day after the president's call with Ukraine. Holmes was having lunch with Sondland in Kyiv and said he could overhear Trump ask about "investigations" during a "colorful" conversation.

After the phone call, Holmes said Sondland told him Trump cared about "big stuff," including the investigation into the "Biden investigation." Sondland said he didn't recall raising the Bidens.

During Thursday's testimony, the president tweeted that while his own hearing is "great" he's never been able to understand another person's conversation that wasn't on speaker. "Try it," he suggested.

Holmes also testified about his growing concern as Giuliani orchestrated Ukraine policy outside official diplomatic channels. It was a concern shared by others, he testified.

"My recollection is that Ambassador Sondland stated, "Every time Rudy gets involved he goes and f---s everything up."

Holmes testified that he grew alarmed throughout the year, watching as Giuliani was "making frequent public statements pushing for Ukraine to investigate interference in the 2016 election and issues related to Burisma and the Bidens."

Hill left the White House before the July phone call that sparked the impeachment probe, though she was part of other key meetings and conversations related to Ukraine policy. She opened her testimony with an impassioned plea for Republicans to stop peddling an alternative theory of 2016 election interference and helping Russia sow divisions in the United States.

"This is exactly what the Russian government was hoping for," she said about the currently American political climate. "They would pit one side of our electorate against the others."

She warned that Russia is gearing up to intervene again in the 2020 U.S. election. "We are running out of time to stop them," she testified.

Trump — as well as Republicans on the panel, including ranking GOP Rep. Devin Nunes of California — continue to advance the idea that Russian interference was a "hoax," and that it was Ukraine that was trying to swing the election, to stop Trump's presidency.

"That is the Democrats' pitiful legacy," Nunes said in his opening remarks. He called it all part of the same effort, from "the Russia hoax" to the "shoddy sequel" of the impeachment inquiry.

Hill, who became a U.S. citizen in 2002, told lawmakers she was the daughter of a coal miner in the northeast of England, noting it is the same region George Washington's ancestors came from.

Hill said Bolton told her separately he didn't want to be involved in any "drug deal" Sondland and Trump's acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney were cooking up over the Ukrainian investigations Trump wanted.

In Moscow on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was pleased that the "political battles" in Washington had overtaken the Russia allegations, which are supported by the U.S. intelligence agencies.

"Thank God," Putin said, "no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore. Now they're accusing Ukraine."


Photos: Scenes from Day 5 of the public impeachment hearings

If TD Ameritrade is acquired by Schwab, what would it mean for employees and for Omaha?

Officially, there was only silence Thursday from TD Ameritrade’s towering green-tinted headquarters amid published reports that the online brokerage firm was set to be sold.

But there was much buzz and concern among the company’s roughly 2,300 local employees on what such a merger could mean to them and the city that TD Ameritrade has called home since founder Joe Ricketts brokered his first trade.

The firm’s employees arrived at work Thursday morning to a Fox Business Network report that the company was being sold to San Francisco-based Charles Schwab for $26 billion. Other press reports indicated that the two firms are still in talks on a megadeal.

Employees received a company email acknowledging the reports but indicating that there was nothing to announce.

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“This came completely out of nowhere,” said one longtime TD Ameritrade worker, who described an uneasy mood around the office.

If it does happen, the sale of TD Ameritrade to Schwab would almost certainly lead to consolidation of jobs and functions between the companies and the loss of a Fortune 1000 headquarters in Omaha.

Still, workers, analysts and others could only speculate on what exactly a sale would mean to TD Ameritrade’s operations in the city, its employees here or the 7,000 others nationwide.

The fact that no announcement followed the news reports suggests that it may not yet be a done deal.

And analysts say any such merger could face hurdles with regulators because of the industry concentration that would be created by such a brokerage behemoth. The combined company would control 24 million client accounts and hold $5 trillion in customer assets, including Schwab’s $3.7 trillion and TD Ameritrade’s $1.3 trillion.

Besides TD Ameritrade’s client assets, analysts say there’s no question that one of the biggest attractions to Schwab would be the efficiency gained by combining operations.

“I wouldn’t underestimate the opportunities for expense savings,” said James Shanahan, an analyst at Edward Jones. He said similar mergers in the industry have led to cost reductions equal to half the expenses of the acquired company.

But Shanahan said it doesn’t have to be a hopeless situation for Omaha. He wouldn’t rule out the possibility that a merged Schwab-TD Ameritrade would keep significant operations in Omaha — or even decide to add to them over time.

The reason: the cost of operations is much lower in Omaha than in Schwab’s base in San Francisco. The Bay Area is home to some of the nation’s most expensive real estate and has much higher taxes, too. And that makes the cost of labor much higher there.

Shanahan noted that when Wachovia bought A.G. Edwards in 2007, the company ended up adding jobs in Edwards’ former home in St. Louis. That growth in the city continued after Wachovia was bought soon after by Wells Fargo.

“It’s happened before,” Shanahan said. “It’s not far-fetched to think Schwab would build up the operations there, especially given the substantial cost advantages.”

Joe Ricketts, the father of Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, has long taken pride in the company the family built in Omaha, which for years ranked as the nation’s highest-volume online broker.

Starting as a small discount brokerage in 1975, Ricketts’ firm really took off in 1995, when he acquired another company that had pioneered the first online trade a year earlier. The Internet exploded, and Ricketts took the company public in 1997, becoming a billionaire within two years.

Ricketts retired as CEO almost two decades ago and left TD Ameritrade’s board in 2011. But son Todd Ricketts, chairman of the family-owned Chicago Cubs baseball team, still sits on the 12-member board. And the Ricketts family continues to be a major TD Ameritrade stockholder.

According to disclosure filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Joe Ricketts owns more than 5% of TD Ameritrade stock — holdings that were worth $1.75 billion at the close of the market on Thursday. His wife, Marlene, holds shares worth another $671 million.

The company reported that as a board member, Todd Ricketts holds shares worth $22 million. Gov. Ricketts’ financial disclosure statement also indicates that he owns TD Ameritrade stock but does not list an amount.

TD Ameritrade has survived a number of previous rounds of mergers in the highly competitive online trading business. Only two years ago, it completed its own acquisition of Scottrade.

If the company doesn’t survive the next merger round, that can likely be traced to a recent industry war over trading fees.

Last month, Schwab announced that it was eliminating sales commissions on U.S. stocks and exchange-traded funds. Within hours, TD Ameritrade announced that it was likewise doing away with its $7-per-trade commission, and other competitors soon followed suit.

The “race to zero” on commissions actually started in 2013, when a Silicon Valley startup launched with no fees. But as an online sales leader, TD Ameritrade has been more reliant on such commissions than Schwab. For TD Ameritrade, the loss of that revenue amounted to almost $1 billion annually.

“It was much more painful for Ameritrade,” Shanahan said.

Wall Street took notice, and TD Ameritrade stock plummeted by almost 30% within days of the commission announcement. That no doubt helped fuel merger talks. CEO Tim Hockey acknowledged last month that the elimination of such fees would lead to speculation about mergers.

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On the news reports Thursday, TD Ameritrade’s stock price was up by almost 17% by the end of the day.

Just six years ago, TD Ameritrade moved into its new $250 million headquarters building, highly visible just off Interstate 680 and West Dodge Road.

There was a mix of emotions Thursday for those who work there. Employees spoke on the condition of anonymity, one saying they had been instructed by the company not to talk to the press.

“The mood was somber,” one said. “There are so many unanswered questions.”

Workers knew that the company had taken a serious hit in the “race to zero.” But company leaders had recently been rolling out the plan for how TD Ameritrade would adapt and grow, making the news reports a shocker.

One worker expressed a gloomy outlook, saying he thought that Schwab only wants TD Ameritrade’s customers and trading platform, with little or no interest in its workforce.

Another who has been through previous mergers — albeit as the buyer, not the potential target — was concerned but still hopeful. There was talk among some workers of the advantages a merged company could gain by consolidating operations in Omaha.

“They will look at both sides of this, and it’s going to be a long play,” the veteran employee said. “It was not all doom and gloom. But people are uneasy.”

The Omaha area's largest employers

List: The Omaha area's largest employers