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Sen. Ben Sasse reports just over $600k in book royalties, more than three times his annual salary

WASHINGTON — The two books Sen. Ben Sasse has written in office are paying off for him. The Nebraska Republican received $601,276 in royalties, according to his 2018 annual financial disclosure report filed Tuesday.

That’s more than three times the $174,000 annual salary that Sasse receives as a U.S. senator.

It’s an eye-catching figure that’s sure to give new life to complaints from critics who say that Sasse is more focused on his writing career than his day job representing Nebraska.

2018 Annual Financial Disclosure Report - Sen. Ben Sasse

Sasse was first elected in 2014 and recently announced that he will seek a second term in 2020.

Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb noted the six-figure salary senators already receive.

“Instead of making sure that the trade wars end and that we actually make health insurance more affordable for families, he’s busy traipsing around the country making over half a million dollars on his book,” Kleeb said.

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Sasse has been the subject of such criticisms previously. After his first book was published, spokesman James Wegmann defended Sasse’s record and called such complaints silly and partisan.

In a statement Tuesday, Wegmann said “Sasse has written from 4 to 7 a.m. daily for twenty years, and his writing on raising kids and the toxicity of politics has obviously connected with a lot of Nebraskans.”

The royalties came to Sasse via literary agent Javelin Group, based in Alexandria, Virginia, according to the report.

It also details agreements with publisher St. Martin’s Press that refer to royalties ranging from 7.5% to 25%.

The report notes four Sasse trips that were paid for by St. Martin’s in October and November involving travel to either New York or Washington, D.C.

Those trips were related to promoting his 2018 release “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal.”

In that book, Sasse argues that cultural fragmentation, technological advances and economic disruptions have undermined American unity.

It was not immediately clear how much of the 2018 royalties represent an advance on his latest book and how much are from the sales of his first one, “The Vanishing American Adult.”

That book stemmed in part from his time as president of Midland University and focused on the importance of fostering self-reliance and a strong work ethic in young people.

Ben Sasse's 'The Vanishing American Adult' isn't your typical lawmaker's book

U.S. House members and senators have to file financial reports every year disclosing significant transactions, earned and unearned income, assets and liabilities and travel paid for by outside groups.

Lawmakers are allowed to report holdings in broad ranges, however, which means putting an exact figure on their net worth is virtually impossible.

Sasse reported assets totaling between $1,617,000 and $6,738,000.

The most valuable of those assets is a Victorian town house on Capitol Hill listed between $1 million and $5 million.

Sasse paid $926,000 for the house in 2017. Wegmann said at the time that the senator planned to make it a part-time rental property.

Sasse reported receiving between $5,000 and $15,000 in revenue from the property last year. The report does not detail who rented the house and made those payments.

As for liabilities, Sasse reported a mortgage of $500,000 to $1 million with the State Employees Credit Union in Maryland.

Meet the Nebraska state senators

Growth in a 'morbid niche': Bulletproof items for kids

The bulletproof panels are designed to withstand multiple rounds from a handgun — and two of this season's bestsellers are emblazoned with Disney princesses and Avengers superheroes.

"Here's our demographic: parents with kids," said Steve Naremore, founder of TuffyPacks, a Houston-based company that sells bulletproof backpack inserts. "It's a real morbid niche."

And a growing one: Sales have increased every year since 2016. Some American consumers, acting on their fears of mass shootings at schools, are buying bulletproof backpacks, clipboards, even three ring binder inserts.

Retailers across the country say they have seen growing demand for bullet-resistant products for children — as well as for doctors, teachers, flight attendants and taxi drivers — giving rise to an industry of ballistic goods for everyday Americans, though there is little evidence that the products are effective. For the first time, Office Max and Office Depot have included bulletproof backpacks among their back-to-school offerings, while online retailers are marketing bulletproof whiteboards, chair cushions and kids' puffer vests.

"So many of the things we're investing in today, whether it's smart-home technology or protective backpacks, are about safety and security," said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst for the market research firm NPD Group. "Every time we have one of these incidents, it's a reminder of just how vulnerable we are."

As a result, bulletproof products have become a booming business that picks up every time a large-scale shooting rattles the nation. This month, gunmen in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, killed at least 31 people and injured dozens more with military-style rifles.

Within hours, Leatherback Gear, which sells backpacks that convert into bulletproof vests, saw a 12-fold increase in sales. The company's backpacks — named simply "civilian one" and "tactical one" — were designed by active-duty law enforcement officers and sell for $330 to $400.

Brad de Geus, who founded the company with his brother three years ago, said demand has been so high that the Costa Mesa, California, company is releasing two new styles, including a sporty model for $280 and a smaller children's bag for $100.

"It's just like having a fire extinguisher or using a seat belt," he said. "These are personal devices for life-threatening situations."

Naremore, of TuffyPacks, began making backpack inserts three years ago after his daughter, a fourth-grade teacher in Dallas, told him about active-shooter drills at her school. About 95% of his business, he said, comes from parents.

He recently pulled branded inserts with Disney princesses, Marvel superheroes and Harry Potter decals from his site after Disney demanded that he stop selling products with its characters on them. Naremore says he was using licensed fabric for those items, but "there's a stigma anytime you have 'bullets' and 'kids' in the same sentence."

Raquel Donahue just bought a bullet-resistant backpack insert for her 6-year-old son. She and her son's father, an IraqWar veteran, began discussing the idea last March after eight students and two teachers were killed in a school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, less than 50miles from their home. After a mass shooting in El Paso on Aug. 3 left 22 people dead, they decided it was time.

"We know it's not a magical device, but he's starting first grade and we want to feel a little better about putting him on a school bus each day," said Donahue, 38, a librarian. "What we really need is gun reform. But our lawmakers are not moving at the speed parents need them to, so this is the best we can do."

She went online and paid $75 for a ballistic insert that her son's grandmother will sew into his JanSport backpack.

Then came the hard part: Explaining the decision to her son. She told him that if a gunman came to his school, he could hold his backpack in front of his body for protection.

"But what if they shoot my hand?" he asked.

"I said, that would hurt a lot," Donahue recalled. "But it's better than them shooting you in the head or the heart."

He was quiet for a moment. "Yes," he finally agreed. "If I get shot in my hand, at least I won't die."

Sales have been steadily rising at Guard Dog Security in Sanford, Florida, which introduced its first ballistic backpack in 2013. This year it introduced a smaller version, which starts at $99.

It comes in hot pink and teal, and weighs 20 ounces, roughly the same as a water bottle.

"The primary goal was to make it lightweight for schoolchildren," said Yasir Sheikh, the company's president.

The company's products — like virtually every bulletproof backpack on the market — are advertised as meeting "Ballistic Level IIIA" standards, which means they can withstand bullets from handguns and revolvers. They do not, however, guard against military-style variations such as the ones used in El Paso and Dayton.

The products are not vetted by the National Institute of Justice, an arm of the Justice Department that certifies body armor for law enforcement officers.

Academics who study mass shootings say there is little, if any, proof that bullet-resistant products make children safer. Instead, they say, schools and lawmakers should focus on preventing gun violence by banning assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.

"This is pure marketing to exploit fear," said Matthew Mayer, a professor at Rutgers University whose research focuses on school violence prevention. "We have no evidence that these things work. They're giving kids and their parents a false sense of security."

Mass shootings, he added, "are fluid, rapidly developing, unpredictable events." The chances that a child would have such a backpack handy at precisely the right moment — and quickly calibrate the shooter's position and the bullets' potential trajectory to position backpack — is "something so beyond reality that it's just not logical."

Even so, demand for such products continues to grow. Though analysts do not have hard numbers yet, they estimate that the market for bulletproof consumer gear is in the tens of millions of dollars.

New jail, mental health center, roads among focuses of Sarpy's $176 million budget

Leaders in Sarpy County often name three major projects when discussing the fast-growing area’s future: a new jail, a mental health center and roads that adequately serve the population.

All three subjects are among the priorities of the county’s $176 million 2020 budget proposal.

If approved, the budget would keep the property tax rate at 29.69 cents per $100 of valuation, which would produce an expected $49.8 million. That figure would account for 28% of the total budget.

Under that rate, which has remained steady since 2002, the owner of a $200,000 home pays $593.80 a year in county property taxes.

Highlights of the proposed budget:

Increased funds for roads projects

At $22.9 million, the county’s proposed roads budget is several million dollars higher than the amounts budgeted in recent years, which generally fell between $14 million to $16 million.

County officials say the increase reflects a focus on improving the area’s 1,365 lane miles.

More than 50 roads projects are on deck for the new budget year, which runs from July 1 to June 30.

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“There’s no doubt that we have to invest in infrastructure improvements across Sarpy County, and the budget committee has done an amazing job finding the money to do that without adding an extra burden on the Sarpy County taxpayer,” Sarpy County Board Chairman Don Kelly said in a statement.

About two dozen of the 54 projects have been identified as priorities, including:

  • Construction of a three-lane road near 108th Street and Platteview Road
  • Public safety improvements to the entire Platteview Road corridor
  • Construction of a two-lane road on Giles Road from 192nd to 204th Street

Some of the increased funding will come from unused portions of last year’s budget that roll into the next budget cycle.

A new jail

Sarpy County has been sounding the alarm for years about its 148-bed jail, which officials say is aging and overcrowded.

The number of inmates housed at the three-decade-old facility often swells beyond capacity. It also lacks the mental health resources that experts say are necessary to aid the jail’s population.

In this y

ear’s proposal, the county is marking $3.7 million for the project, which remains in the early planning stages. Conceptual plans have shown a three-story, $70 million jail that could be built on the current county government campus near Washington Street and Highway 370 in Papillion.

Those concepts are early mock-ups of what the jail could look like; the designs, cost and location could change as the county continues exploring its options.

Dan Hoins, Sarpy County’s administrator, said those dollars are part of the county’s long-term planning in connection with the jail. As the county decides where the facility will be built, how it will be funded and when construction will begin, it will need cash to make progress.

One potential major expense could be debt service on bonds, if the county pursues that option as a funding mechanism.

Last year’s county budget set aside about $7 million for building a new jail, including design work, land acquisition and construction costs down the road, though that full amount wasn’t expected to be spent.

Mental health center

Sarpy’s plans for a new jail are closely connected to plans for another major project: a mental health center.

The 2020 budget earmarks $1.25 million for a mental health crisis stabilization center that would serve those who need short-term mental health services and don’t belong in jail.

The $1.25 million figure was originally intended to go toward land acquisition of a site near 25th Street and Highway 370 in Bellevue, but county officials backed out of an agreement to purchase that land amid protests from the City of Bellevue.

The county is now in the process of partnering with Nebraska Medicine. A formal agreement has not yet been reached, Hoins said.

A public hearing on the proposed 2020 budget will be held at the Aug. 20 Sarpy County Board meeting, held at 1210 Golden Gate Drive.

Our best photos, July 2019

Mutual of Omaha CEO weighs in on what bank sale could mean for the city

The sale of Mutual of Omaha’s fast-growing bank operations to New York-based CIT Group does not necessarily mean bad news for the bank’s 189 Nebraska employees, Mutual’s CEO said Tuesday.

But James Blackledge said he can’t make any guarantees.

In his conversations with CIT’s top executive, Blackledge said, she seemed appreciative of the talent already in place here, as well as the low costs and potential in “a great operational place like Nebraska.” He said he thinks Omahans ultimately will be happy to see that the existing employee base in Omaha “will be an important part of CIT moving forward.”

“We would hope that CIT would see the same great things we see in Omaha and would want to grow that workforce,” Blackledge said in an interview.

At the same time, Mutual’s CEO said the $1 billion transaction will give his company much-needed capital to continue to expand its core insurance operations here in Omaha.

The two companies jointly announced Tuesday that CIT is acquiring Mutual of Omaha Bank, which the Fortune 500 insurance company had nurtured from scratch over the past 12 years into the 126th-largest bank in the nation and third-largest in the state.

The bank has a headquarters in Omaha in the Landmark building at 13th and Farnam Streets, as well as five branches in Omaha and one in Lincoln. The bank has about 20 other retail and commercial centers in Denver, Kansas City, Arizona, California, Nevada, Florida, Texas and Hawaii, in all employing 850 workers nationwide.

Mutual was unusual among insurance companies in launching the bank in 2007, using extra cash from its insurance operations to get it off the ground. Mutual also took advantage of its brand name and reputation for friendly financial strength that dates back decades to the “Wild Kingdom” television series.

The bank’s growth came both organically and through acquisitions, the most critical being its purchase of the First National Bank of Arizona out of FDIC receivership in July 2008. Due to that sizable acquisition, nearly half the bank’s employees are based in Arizona, which is also home of the bank’s main technology center, in the Phoenix area.

By 2018, banking represented about 4% of Mutual revenues. Because of a down year in insurance, the bank also provided roughly 20% of Mutual’s pretax earnings that year.

“It certainly has been a tremendous success story,” Blackledge said. “It speaks to the quality of the bank team, the bank associates and the support of the business climate in Nebraska.”

Blackledge called the sale of the bank a difficult but necessary one for the future of both the bank and Mutual’s insurance operations.

Like the bank, Mutual’s insurance business also has been growing. In the past three years, Mutual has seen its workforce spike by nearly 700 workers to 5,166, the bulk of them in Omaha.

Financing that growth requires capital, and as a mutual insurance company, Mutual has limited access to external cash. As Blackledge and other Mutual executives looked at how to allocate scarce capital over the two growing business lines, they began to explore selling the bank.

“We had to make a choice there,” he said. “In a lot of ways, we are victims of our own success.”

As Mutual’s leaders undertook the process of finding the right buyer, they kept the future of the bank’s associates in mind, Blackledge said. And in CIT, they think they found a good partner.

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CIT primarily has operations on the East and West Coasts, with almost no footprint in the Midwest or in most of the other states where Mutual’s bank does business. That means there are no redundant branches here and little in the way of redundant operations, he said.

Blackledge said that in his conversations with Ellen Alemany, the CEO of CIT, she also recognized the business advantages available here, including the lower cost of operations. It ultimately will be up to CIT to figure out how best to leverage that, he said.

“I can’t guarantee anything for anybody, but we thought it was a great fit,” Blackledge said. “I have every confidence there is going to be some great opportunities for folks here in Nebraska, as well as back in Phoenix.”

Jeff Schmid, who has been the chief executive of Mutual’s banking division from the start, declined to talk about his own future Tuesday. He said through a Mutual spokesman that his focus remains on running the bank and continuing its growth.

The transaction is expected to close in the first quarter of 2020, subject to regulatory approval and satisfaction of other customary closing conditions.

CIT officials did not return a call to The World-Herald on Tuesday. CIT officials said in a conference call with analysts that they expected over three years to realize $54 million in cost savings through the transaction. They offered no details on where CIT would find those savings across the merged banks.

Alemany did note how well the Omaha bank complements its “existing franchise” and said it also offers her bank’s customers “a broader set of product and technology solutions.” She also said the Omaha bank’s view on risk and its customer focus also match that of CIT.

“We believe Mutual of Omaha Bank is a good fit,” she said during the conference call.

Particularly attractive to CIT was a unique part of the Omaha bank’s business.

Mutual serves as the banker for 31,000 homeowners associations nationwide, a niche that also came with acquisition of the Arizona bank. Some $4.5 billion of Mutual of Omaha Bank’s $6.8 billion in deposits now relate to that business, which Blackledge called the bank’s “crown jewel.”

The Omaha bank’s $8.3 billion in total assets also include some $3.9 billion in commercial loans, with 3,200 business clients overall.

No Mutual real estate will change hands in the acquisition, as the company leases all of its bank buildings. Some of the leases are long-term.

The purchase agreement excludes Mutual’s mortgage subsidiary, Synergy One Lending, which Blackledge says Mutual decided to keep. Mortgages serve as a good complement to Mutual’s insurance products, as both are sold primarily to individuals.

“The protection products we sell fit in very well around buying a home,” he said. “We like that business.”

Now Mutual will figure out how to deploy the proceeds from the bank sale, which will include at least $850 million in cash and up to $150 million in CIT stock. Blackledge gave no details other than to say the cash will be invested to continue the growth and momentum of Mutual’s primary business.

David G. Brown, president and CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber, also struck a positive tone in assessing the transaction Tuesday. He noted that having another new “employer brand” like CIT in Omaha can offer other opportunities for growth in the region.

“We have every confidence in Mutual of Omaha’s leadership during this transition, and join them in support of the opportunities this means for the organization and their employees,” he said.

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