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State treasurer opened new Omaha office in September but hasn't alerted the public

State Treasurer John Murante opened a west Omaha office nearly four months ago, calling it part of his public “outreach” efforts.

But there’s little public about this office.

It’s not listed on the State Treasurer’s website. There has been no press release about it. There’s no signage outside the office building to indicate a state office is inside. There’s not even a mention of the office on the list of tenants by the building’s elevator.

It’s only after you take the elevator to floor two, and wander down a quiet hallway, that you’ll find a glass door with a copy machine-printed sign taped to it proclaiming that it’s a State Treasurer’s Office.

The office, which has been open since September, is raising eyebrows among some who watch government spending and transparency. The office costs $58,700 a year, and was leased for 10 years, according to the state’s Department of Administrative Services.

The discovery of the office comes as questions are being raised about a spate of recent television ads run by the first-term treasurer that prominently feature Murante and his family. Those ads have cost nearly $600,000 over the past six months and were produced by a company for which Murante had worked.

Murante defended the increased spending on the ads and the office as fulfilling a campaign promise to better publicize the services of the Treasurer’s Office, which offers college savings plans, seeks to return unclaimed property to citizens and handles child support payments. At a March legislative hearing, he asked the Legislature for authority to spend more on promotion.

“That’s what I promised the people and that’s what I intend to do,” he said in an interview last week.

A key goal, Murante said, is to increase awareness of the Nebraska Educational Savings Trust (NEST) because, effective in 2021, every child born in Nebraska from 2020 forward will automatically have an account opened in their name.

“We have a daunting task. We need 100% awareness of the NEST between now and next January,” he said.

But critics say the state-funded ads appear to be as much about raising Murante’s name recognition as promoting state services.

And they said that the little-known Omaha office, at 111 N. 181st St., doesn’t seem like an effective way to reach the public, and may be more about letting Omaha-area workers, like Murante, avoid the drive to the treasurer’s State Capitol office in Lincoln.

The state document seeking bids for an Omaha location asked for “adequate parking for invitees, employees and state vehicles.” And the dozens of TV ads for unclaimed property and college savings plans don’t mention an Omaha office where people can get information.

“If you want people to get their unclaimed property, let them know how to do it,” said Jim Rogers, executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party.

John Murante

Murante said he uses the Omaha office an average of two times a week when he has meetings or events in the city. Three other employees — who, like Murante, all live in the Omaha area — also use the office, including Murante’s deputy treasurer, Tyson Larson, a former state senator.

“The purpose is to expand access to services provided by the State Treasurer’s Office,” said Murante, who served in the Legislature with Larson.

When asked why the public outreach office still hadn’t been made public after four months, he responded: “It will. We want to make sure everything’s in order and we’re fully operational before we publicize it too heavily.”

But it hasn’t been publicized at all. Why?

“Yeah, it’s the same rationale,” Murante said.

A World-Herald reporter visited the Treasurer’s Office on Thursday afternoon. It’s located in a building that also houses the United Republic Bank, which is at the corner of 180th and Burke Streets.

The door to the office was open, but there wasn’t a receptionist or any workers in sight. After the reporter shouted hello, a man emerged from an office down the hallway and said, “Oh.”

When the reporter asked if he could talk to the state treasurer, he was directed further down the hall to an office occupied by Larson. He declined to comment publicly, but offered to look up any unclaimed property that might be linked to the reporter, or provide help with a college savings account.

The office has a large corner office with a desk and chairs, a meeting room with a table and several chairs, plus five or six office spaces that were mostly empty.

Murante said that his office is working with the landlord to get signage put up but that the facility wouldn’t be “up and running” for several weeks.

State bid documents said office space was preferred west of 120th Street or in Regency Plaza. The treasurer said he sought an office in Omaha because 45% of unclaimed property with a value of more than $25 is owed to residents of the state’s largest city.

“This will make it as convenient as possible,” Murante said. He added that he didn’t know why the request for parking listed only “invited guests.”

“It will become much more public when it becomes operational,” he said.

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The Treasurer’s Office for several years has had an unclaimed property office in Lincoln. It’s easily visible from a street in the busy Haymarket District, where people can walk up to a window and see if they are owed any unclaimed investments, life insurance proceeds and the like.

Murante, who is a Republican, rejected suggestions that the Westroads Mall or the Old Market would be more accessible locations in Omaha. He said the 180th and Burke location is in the center of the city, and convenient, because it’s just off the nearby West Dodge Expressway.

He acknowledged that it’s easier for Omaha-based employees of the Treasurer’s Office to work there instead of making the hourlong drive to Lincoln, but said that wasn’t the point of opening the office.

A former state treasurer, Dawn Rockey, a Democrat, questioned the need for an office in Omaha that wasn’t publicly known or easily accessible to the public.

“To me, a satellite office would be open to the public to make services you offer more available,” she said.

Jack Gould, of the political watchdog group Common Cause, called the opening of a Treasurer’s Office that the general public isn’t aware of “really highhanded.” If the office’s opening had been publicly shared, he said the public would at least be able to judge if it was justified or not.

A recent series of television ads commissioned by the Treasurer’s Office also drew criticism.

Advertising, to inform people about the state’s college savings plans or unclaimed property, has always been a part of the Treasurer’s Office. But Murante, according to state figures, appears to have taken it to a new level, and has hired a political services company he used to work for.

In the past, most promotional efforts by the office focused on its website, booths at the State Fair and other events. The office also has put out a yearly publication with the list of unclaimed property held by the state, but has run only sporadic radio and television ads.

Under Murante, spending on the category of “printing and publications,” which includes the TV ads, is on a pace to exceed $900,000 during the 2019-20 fiscal year, which is about five times what the previous state treasurer, Don Stenberg, spent.

State records also show that from June into December, Murante has spent $593,200 on television ads with one firm, Victory Enterprises of Davenport, Iowa. Murante used to work for the firm, and the company handled his campaign ads during his 2018 election.

During the month of August alone, 852 TV ads were broadcast in which Murante invited Nebraskans to visit his office’s booth at the Nebraska State Fair and Husker Harvest Days. Three other ads promoted the college savings program, the unclaimed property held by the Treasurer’s Office and the ABLE program to save for disability-related expenses.

Each begins with “Hi, I’m State Treasurer John Murante ...” and one features a shot of his wife and their young child.

A state law requires public bids to be taken for contract for state services in excess of $50,000. But a spokesman for the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services, which handles such bids, said the law does not apply to state constitutional officers, such as Murante.

The treasurer said that the “public service” campaign is scheduled to cost just over $628,000, and less will be spent on printing and publications in the second half of the fiscal year.

Still, Rogers, the Democratic Party official, said the spending seemed “wildly excessive.” The amount of spending, as well as the ability to avoid an open bidding process, are things the State Legislature ought to clamp down on, he said.

Murante, though, said “there’s nothing remotely political” about the ads, and that they’ve been effective, increasing claims for unclaimed property by three-fold in October after the ads were broadcast.

The treasurer said he chose to work with Victory Enterprises because he was familiar with the firm and because it does good work. He said the firm agreed to charge “the standard fee” for producing and placing the TV ads, and he figured he couldn’t get a better deal.

He said he inquired with at least one other company about its charges before hiring Victory Enterprises, where, as late as early 2018, he worked as an “independent contractor.” In 2014, he reported that he was “state director” for the company, which does political and corporate consulting and communications.

Critics said the television ads run by Murante clearly work to increase his name recognition and popularity for political purposes and possibly a run for another office.

Murante rejected that, saying he’s focused on his current elected position, though his name has been mentioned as a possible future candidate for governor or secretary of state.

He emphasized that the money for the ads came from fees paid by college savings account holders and from leftover funds in the unclaimed property account.

A requirement of the firm managing the NEST program is to devote a certain amount to marketing. The request for proposals for the new contract called for $750,000 a year to be spent on publicity, with the treasurer giving final approval to all ads.

Randall Adkins, a University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor, said that it’s often said that politicians are “single-minded seekers of reelection.” He said that visiting the State Fair and running advertisements like Murante is doing are part of preparing for the next election.

But Murante insisted that his goals were to reach as many people as possible and get as many as possible to invest in college savings accounts or to claim their unclaimed property. The ads and the Omaha office are ways to achieve that, he said.

“We’re doing a lot of great work, and I’m proud of the staff I have,” he said.

Meet the Nebraska state senators

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After system failed to stop OPS student's abuse, education commissioner wants CPS to share reports

The message has been drummed into teachers’ heads.

If you see something, say something.

But when a teacher at Davis Middle School in Omaha phoned the state child abuse hotline and reported troubling behavior by fellow teacher Brian Robeson, no one investigated.

Robeson continued to sexually abuse his 14-year-old former student for seven months before the abuse was discovered by her neighbor.

The outcome may have been different, however, had another agency been tipped off.

Brian Robeson

Robeson’s actions could have been investigated by the Nebraska Department of Education, which has the power to discipline certified educators for actions that fall short of sexual assault but violate professional ethics.

Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt, who leads that department, said he never knew of the CPS call.

Under current state law, if Child Protective Services receives a hotline call and determines the child hasn’t been abused or neglected, and police see no evidence of a crime, then no investigation is launched.

That was the case at Davis, where the teacher’s touchy-feely manners with kids raised eyebrows but never triggered a formal investigation.

Matt Blomstedt

Although staff expressed numerous concerns internally about his behaviors, school officials never separated Robeson and the girl, or launched a formal investigation to find out what was going on between them.

After a World-Herald story Dec. 15 detailed the abuse that occurred at Davis, Blomstedt said he wants to find a way for CPS to alert him when callers raise suspicions about an educator.

“I can actually get someone removed from the classroom for an ethical violation even if there isn’t a criminal case to be had,” Blomstedt said.

Under state law, CPS can share a caller’s information only with police or the county attorney.

“We’re not able to share information within our reports with other agencies,” said Amanda Nawrocki, child and family services administrator over the hotline.

Blomstedt acknowledged that the sharing would require a change in the law.

“If it means legislation, then I would like to explore what that could look like,” he said.

If an arrangement to share information can’t be worked out, Blomstedt said, then CPS should at least have callers contact his department and fill out a complaint when a teacher is involved.

Emails, hugs, promises: Teen victim describes how OPS teacher groomed her for sexual abuse

Staff members reported concerns about the teacher's behavior with girls, but school officials never separated him and the student, or launched a formal investigation into his behavior. Despite that, a federal judge sided with OPS on a lawsuit alleging the school district violated the girl's constitutional rights to be free from sexual harassment under Title IX.

Over the years, Nebraska teachers, principals and coaches have been disciplined for violating professional boundaries with students — the kinds of acts that experts say can signal grooming by a sexual predator.

Discipline can range from a private letter of admonishment to a public reprimand, suspension and permanent revocation of their certificate.

Under rules for the profession, educators must exhibit “good moral character.” They are prohibited from sexually harassing students or exploiting their professional relationship with students for personal gain or private advantage. In addition, they must not “commit any act of moral turpitude” — that means immoral acts.

In the Davis case, the teacher reported to CPS that Robeson engaged in a lingering hug with a girl and that she had seen Robeson poke the victim in the stomach in a hallway and touch her shoulders as if he were giving her a massage.

What’s not widely known, Blomstedt and other state education officials said, is that educators are obliged to report any known acts of moral turpitude by a colleague to the state education commissioner. If they don’t, they put their own certification in jeopardy.

Blomstedt said his department may have to do more to inform educators about their duty to report suspected ethics violations by colleagues.

One advantage to alerting the department, he said, is that state investigators may be able to recognize patterns of behavior better than at the local district level.

That could help prevent bad actors from moving from district to district when they get in trouble, preventing what’s termed “pass the trash.”

“If I got a report on the same person later, I’d know I got that report, and it gives me a chance to be able to start to act on it,” he said.

Experts offer tips to talk with kids about abuse

Brian Halstead, a deputy commissioner in the department, investigated and prosecuted educators for violations from 1990 through 2017.

The department will take complaints directly from anyone, he said.

“I told everybody who would call me: Make a report. File a complaint. You cannot get yourself in trouble by reporting. The surest way to get yourself into trouble is to not report.”

The process for submitting a complaint can be found at education.ne.gov/cc/complaint-form.

If people have questions about the process, they can contact the Certification Investigations’ Office at nde.investigations@nebraska.gov.

Andy Rikli, superintendent of Papillion-La Vista Community Schools, is the former chair of the Nebraska Professional Practices Commission, or PPC.

The commission conducts hearings on suspected teacher misconduct uncovered by department investigators. It can issue admonishments or reprimands, and recommends more serious discipline to the Nebraska State Board of Education.

He said it makes sense for CPS to share what it knows.

Rikli said that while the most immediate concern for teachers who suspect abuse is to call police or CPS, a school’s involvement shouldn’t end there.

“I think as a school district we would be very interested in doing our own investigation,” he said. “It may not rise to the level of a PPC or a criminal complaint. But there may be some ethical things or policy things that a teacher or professional violated, and we want to get to the bottom of it.”

He said he believes that the teaching profession in Nebraska has done a good job impressing on new hires their legal obligation to report to CPS but could do better reporting professional misconduct to the state.

Maddie Fennell, executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association, said she would support CPS sharing information with the Department of Education investigators.

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She said the department should shift its investigative efforts toward teacher misconduct and away from disciplining teachers who’ve left their jobs before their contact is up — what’s known as abrogation.

Teachers who break their contract and leave a district mid-year typically face suspension of the certificate for one year.

“I understand districts are struggling to keep people in their contracts, but they need to look at the why behind people leaving,” Fennell said. “They’re not leaving because they’re getting offered $10,000 more. They’re leaving because they’re mentally and emotionally exhausted, and they’ve had it.”

Blomstedt said abrogation cases don’t sap a lot of investigative time, but they do take administrative time. He said he’s trying to streamline those processes.

Fennell said the state teachers union needs to examine whether it can do more to educate its members about reporting their concerns, beyond just calling CPS.

“You have a professional responsibility to go to CPS,” she said. “But maybe we need to be thinking about what happens if … your spider senses are going off. What do you do? How do you address this?”

Renee Hyde, a former assistant superintendent at Papillion-La Vista, now trains would-be superintendents and administrators as an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Sharing between CPS and the department makes sense, she said.

“I truly do think that’s a good idea, because the statistics of abuse occurring at the hands of a trusted teacher or a coach, those statistics are way too high, and we must deal with it as a profession,” she said.

There needs to be some confidentiality in the process, and innocent educators have to be protected from needless harm, she said.

Hyde said people have a natural reluctance to report because no one wants to believe their colleagues are capable of such behavior.

It takes a lot of evidence to override one’s beliefs, she said.

“We have a tendency as a human race to see what we believe, as opposed to believing what we see,” she said.

Notable crime news of 2019

State_and_regional
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'We really are Nebraska strong': Flood heroes named World-Herald's Midlanders of the Year

It’s been nine months since Dannebrog was invaded by swift, icy floodwaters. Lori Larsen still chokes up a little when she thinks about the acts of kindness bestowed upon the tiny village and its residents.

Settled next to Oak Creek and the Middle Loup River north of Grand Island, the 300-person town spent 36 hours evacuated and underwater in mid-March.

As shell-shocked Dannebrog homeowners stared into basements filled to the brim with water, Christian disaster relief volunteers got to work bailing out water and dismantling ruined furnaces.

A Brownie troop leader called Larsen and asked if the girls could gather some donations. Sure, said Larsen, who ran the local flood command center. She appreciated the offer, but didn’t expect too much from the grade schoolers.

They pulled up to Dannebrog with a truckload of provisions and an older brother who offered to make deliveries door to door.

“They hauled supplies in, too, those little girls,” Larsen said, wonder in her voice. “Still, the things that happened just amaze me.”

As nature’s fury was unleashed across parts of Nebraska and western Iowa, firefighters, police and Nebraska National Guard crews pulled off treacherous rescues by airboat, helicopter and high-water vehicle. Residents sandbagged downtown businesses and washed clothes for strangers.

Millions of dollars in donations poured in to buy hay for hungry cattle, send clean water to communities without and provide a little comfort and security to those who lost their homes and nearly all their possessions.

Today, The World-Herald honors these heroes and helpers, the people who responded during and after dangerous, historic flooding. They are the newspaper’s Midlanders of the Year for 2019.

Past Midlander of the Year winners

“Nebraska Strong” trended across social media and became not just a motto, but a movement. This honor is dedicated not only to the people and organizations profiled here, but also to all who gave of themselves to help the heartland recover and rebuild.

It all started with a powerful “bomb cyclone” storm in mid-March that, combined with frozen ground and snowmelt, caused rivers and streams to overflow across parts of Nebraska and western Iowa.

This billion-dollar natural disaster threatened to break communities like Dannebrog, like Niobrara, like Pacific Junction, Iowa. Floodwaters destroyed homes, left roads and levees buckled and broken, and killed five Nebraskans.

And yet, out of the darkness emerged tales of heroism and generosity from people united in purpose and spirit.

Larsen remembers the group of teenage boys from south of Hastings who borrowed their dad’s pickup and filled the bed with donated water and other necessities. They drove from town to town, unloading supplies until they ran out.

A local dropped off a load of rubber boots.

“Do you know how helpful those were?” Larsen said. “Girls put on size 13 men’s boots, but they had boots to go muck out the basement.”

Residents had to be persuaded to accept donated bottles of bleach — surely there was someone worse off who needed it more, they said.

“There’s thousands of stories out there that are heartwarming, and in some cases, heartbreaking,” said Regan Anson of Nebraska Impact, an organization that promotes volunteerism. “People stepped up to do what needed to be done without being asked.”

* * *

Those who answered the call for help don’t fit any certain mold.

Some were first responders who like to say they were simply doing their job. Rural communities in particular relied heavily on volunteer fire departments.

Others were ordinary citizens moved by images of stranded cattle and houses submerged up to the roof. Churches and national and local groups like Team Rubicon or Omaha Rapid Response dispatched armies of volunteers to tear out soggy drywall and serve vats of chili.

Out-of-staters sent money, fencing and bottled water in bulk. When people were stymied by closed roads, pilots volunteered to ferry nurses and children by air.

They listened. They rolled up their sleeves. They asked: What do you need? How can we help? Do you need a hug, a kind word, a prayer?

In many ways, it was Nebraska’s finest hour, Gov. Pete Ricketts said last week at a ceremony to honor flood heroes.

Untold stories of towns hit by catastrophic floods show the lasting impact of a 'true disaster'

In Fremont, where floodwaters cut off roads in and out of the city and low-lying neighborhoods had to be evacuated, Trinity Lutheran Church became a Red Cross emergency shelter on March 15. With only a few hours’ notice, Red Cross workers and congregants set up cots, organized meals and found volunteers to clean bathrooms and play card games to distract scared kids.

One resident, Tony, had to leave his home and stayed briefly at the shelter before he found a bed elsewhere.

“The first thing he did was to come back and tell one of our volunteers … ‘I speak Guatemalan, English and Spanish, and I’m your interpreter for the weekend,’ ” said Anthony Gerber, the church’s senior pastor.

At least half of the evacuees staying at the church spoke little to no English.

“One of the guys without a home was one of our biggest helpers that weekend. He was a huge blessing to us,” Gerber said.

The Salvation Army’s Western Division served more than 44,000 meals; distributed more than 100,000 items, including cleaning supplies and other provisions; and logged more than 24,000 volunteer hours across Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota, spokesman Todd Andrews said. Nearly $3 million was raised for direct financial assistance.

The regional chapter of the American Red Cross opened 30 shelters, served thousands of meals and distributed nearly 2,000 cases of water.

The Nebraska Farm Bureau collected donations totaling nearly $3.5 million for aid to farmers, ranchers and residents of small communities affected by the flood. Just about all of it has been distributed.

“We’re proud people in Nebraska, in agriculture,” said Farm Bureau President Steve Nelson. “Typically we’re not used to asking for help. But this is an extraordinary situation, and it’s OK to ask for help.”

* * *

Others didn’t wait for disaster organizations or emergency services to mobilize.

Columbus farmer James Wilke fired up his tractor when he got a call that a motorist was stranded on a nearby country road on March 14. As he crossed the swollen Shell Creek, the bridge over it collapsed, throwing Wilke and his tractor into the water. His body was found downstream hours later.

While he’s been hailed as a hero and memorialized in a John Deere video, his wife, Rachel Wilke, said her husband wasn’t the type to seek glory or praise.

“Had anybody in my circle of friends gotten that call, they would have gone out and done the same thing,” she said. “That’s just the type of neighbors I have, the type of friends I have. So it was not a surprise to a lot of people that it was James. That’s just the guy he is.”

She finds comfort and strength today in her family, friends, faith and the family farm, where they continue to raise hundreds of cattle. She looks for signs of James in a cherry-red cardinal, a penny on the ground, a warm breeze that their son Colton, 24, felt as he walked the pastures.

“The cattle still need to be fed, the cattle need to be marketed, we need to get cattle out, we need to get cattle in,” she said. “Life doesn’t stop just because the boss is gone.”

People from all over the state and all over the country have sent her cards and condolences.

“When we say we’re Nebraska strong, we really are Nebraska strong,” she said. “There’s so many good people out there.”

* * *

Kipton Oetter has spent years boating, fishing and living alongside the Elkhorn River in Waterloo. “I’m just a crazy fisherman with a boat,” he wrote on Facebook

When the river started rising earlier than expected on the morning of March 15, one of his old neighbors called. He was stuck in his house. The volunteer fire department, slammed with calls for rescue, said it would take anywhere from three to 24 hours to get there.

Oetter jumped in his 15-foot-long jon boat and gave himself a little pep talk as he gingerly navigated the murky waters and the propane tanks that had emptied into the waters. He picked up his former neighbor and another resident and took them back to his home in Riverside Lakes, which became surrounded by water, too. They ended up staying 3½ days.

Oetter’s work didn’t end there.

He and his family own Jack and Mary’s Restaurant in Omaha. He knows a thing or two about cooking and giving out orders, and he knew food distributors who might be willing to donate supplies. Strangers before the flood, he and Carrie Messinger teamed up to serve meals out of a Waterloo church — breakfast, lunch and dinner for families who had to flee their homes.

They ended up distributing 8,000 meals among Waterloo, Fremont, Pacific Junction and Glenwood, Iowa, and created a new organization, Boots on the Ground Meals.

“It was pretty amazing to see the community step up,” Oetter said.

BOOTS ON THE GROUND MEALS 

Carrie Messinger and Kipton Oetter cooked and served meals out of a Waterloo church — breakfast, lunch and dinner for families who had to flee their homes due to flooding. They ended up distributing 8,000 meals among Waterloo, Fremont, Pacific Junction and Glenwood, Iowa, and created a new organization, Boots on the Ground Meals.

And for many groups, the help continues, long after the floodwaters have subsided.

“There’s still a lot of long-term rebuilding and long-term losses to make up for,” said Nelson, of the Farm Bureau. “The effects of this storm are certainly far from over.”

Along with Bethany Lutheran Church in Elkhorn, Boots on the Ground Meals raised money to provide more than a dozen King Lake homeowners with $1,000 credits for new appliances from Nebraska Furniture Mart.

Many flood victims are still repairing their flooded homes and businesses, and feeling the sting from the growing pile of bills, lost income or fields that couldn’t be planted.

“People are struggling,” Larsen said. “Insurance didn’t pay, or (Federal Emergency Management Agency) money doesn’t go that far.

“That’s what people need to realize, all over the state … volunteers are still needed,” she continued. “If you’re involved in a church organization or a business that does community service hours, check with long-term recovery groups and find out who needs a day of help.”

Full coverage: Floods devastated Nebraska, Iowa in March 2019

Lifesaving Nebraska flood heroes honored by Gov. Ricketts, first lady Susanne Shore

Photos courtesy of the Office of Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Lifesaving Nebraska flood heroes honored by Gov. Ricketts, first lady Susanne Shore