CABELA'S

An investment banker says the movement of 11.2 million company shares into charitable trusts could be a “red flag” pointing to a coming sale of the Sidney, Nebraska retailer.

The head of the activist investment firm that bought a large chunk of Cabela’s and now is pressing for changes — including the possible sale of the Sidney-based company — is a significant donor to Gov. Pete Ricketts.

The New York-based investor also has given at least $3.7 million over the past two years to the political action committee founded by the Nebraska governor’s father, J. Joe Ricketts.

Gov. Ricketts told The World-Herald on Oct. 30 that he had talked to the chief executive of Cabela’s in the wake of the announcement of the activist’s stake earlier that month. Ricketts said he had offered any assistance in talking to the investor “if there’s anything (the company) needed from the state to be more competitive.”

As far as specific things the state might be able to offer, “we need to find out what the investors are interested in before we go down that path, so we are focusing on the right things,” he said at the time.

Ricketts told The World-Herald on Tuesday it was “absolutely not” a conflict to advocate for Cabela’s. As far as the donations from the head of the activist firm, Ricketts said he was grateful for the support. He said he hasn’t talked to the head of the firm or anyone else there. He said he also hasn’t talked with Cabela’s officials since he had a second conversation with Chief Executive Tommy Millner on Nov. 5.

Campaign finance records show that billionaire Paul Singer, who founded New York-based Elliott Management in 1977, gave $10,000 to Pete Ricketts for Governor on Nov. 25, 2013. He also gave $25,000 to the governor’s campaign on Sept. 9 last year.

Singer, a prolific political donor, mostly to Republicans, also gave millions of dollars to the ESAFund, Federal Elections Commission records show. The fund was known formerly as the Ending Spending Action Fund, and is the political action committee founded by Gov. Ricketts’ father. The fund advocates reducing federal spending and the size of the federal government, among other things.

This year, the New York Times reported that Singer and other big-time donors met with Ending Spending and other political groups at Joe Ricketts’ home in Wyoming. The governor’s father is the founder of Omaha-based stock brokerage TD Ameritrade; the governor was an executive at the firm.

A spokesman for Singer’s Elliott Management declined to comment. A Cabela’s representative said the company wouldn’t comment.

Ralph Castner, chief financial officer of Cabela’s, also donated $2,000 to Ricketts’ campaign for governor, plus about $730 of in-kind donations.

A representative of J. Joe Ricketts referred questions to Brian Baker, president of the ESAFund. Baker said the group doesn’t comment on individual donors.

Elliott Management, which has $27 billion under management, last month disclosed its 11 percent stake in the Nebraska company, saying it would push for changes to “unlock” value for Cabela’s shareholders. To do that, the activist firm said it would explore a number of options, including selling Cabela’s or parts of it.

If Cabela’s were sold, it’s possible that its headquarters could shrink or pull up stakes altogether, especially if the company were to merge with another retailer. The company employs 2,000 people in Sidney, a city of about 6,800.

Earlier this year, Omaha-based ConAgra Foods also was a target of an activist investor, New York-based Jana Partners. Soon after Jana disclosed its 7 percent stake, the company announced that it would slash expenses, including 1,500 workers, and move its headquarters to Chicago.

Ricketts wasn’t the only Midlands lawmaker who was a beneficiary of Singer’s donations: Campaign records show that Singer also gave $2,600 to Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse’s Senate campaign last year and gave $2,700 to Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, in June.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1414, paige.yowell@owh.com

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