Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine has resigned from the board of the nonprofit corporation that was set up to develop a proposed Douglas County justice center in downtown Omaha.
Kleine, whose status as a longtime prosecutor boosted the public image of the nonprofit, submitted his resignation in September to the Douglas County Unified Justice Center Development Corp.’s board. He cited concerns about avoiding “even the appearance of a possible future conflict (of interest)” between his roles as an elected county official and an officer of the nonprofit’s board of directors.
The Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission, or NADC, is investigating a citizen complaint that county elected officials serving on the corporation’s board have a conflict of interest. There is no allegation that they have a personal financial interest in the project, but rather that the interests of the county could conflict with the interests of the nonprofit.
In his letter, Kleine wrote that he had decided to resign after a discussion with the executive director of the NADC, Frank Daley.
“Our discussion involved several Nebraska statutes from the Political and Accountability Act,” Kleine wrote. “After our discussion and to avoid even the appearance of a possible future conflict, I am resigning from the Board ...”
The letter was dated Sept. 5, two days before the most recent meeting of the nonprofit’s board of directors. Kleine had successfully pushed the corporation to open its meetings and some of its financial records to the public.
In an interview this week, Kleine said he doesn’t want his resignation to be misconstrued. He said he still believes that building a courthouse annex and adjoining youth detention center at 18th and Harney Streets would be good for the county. And he believes that using the nonprofit developer is a good way to do it.
“I didn’t want to take a chance of causing any issues for the project,” Kleine said. “It is something that would be good for Douglas County and its citizens in the long run.”
Douglas County Board members Mary Ann Borgeson and P.J. Morgan also are on the nonprofit’s board. So is Omaha City Council President Ben Gray.
Borgeson, Morgan and Gray all have filed forms with the accountability and disclosure commission declaring a potential conflict of interest between their roles as elected officials and on the nonprofit’s unpaid, volunteer board.
Each wrote that neither they, their families nor any business they are associated with would have any financial benefit or loss from their work on the boards.
In an interview, Morgan said he had been notified that the commission had begun a preliminary investigation. He said he does not believe his roles on the county board and the nonprofit board create a conflict. He said neither he nor his real estate company stand to gain or lose financially because of the project.
“I think the best thing is to let (the investigation) take its course and see where it ends up,” Morgan said. “I don’t want to look as though I feel like I’m doing something wrong.”
Borgeson also said that she plans to remain on the board.
“I don’t see a conflict,” she said. “The corporation is working for the county as its agent. ... It was created specifically for the purpose of fulfilling the project on the county’s behalf.”
Gray could not immediately be reached for comment. In the form he filed with the NADC, Gray wrote that he does not believe that he could have a conflict of interest as a result of serving on the council and the nonprofit board.
“I do not believe that filing this form is necessary, but am doing so out of the abundance of caution,” Gray wrote. “It is my intention that doing so will provide a level of clarity and transparency from some of the mischaracterizations that have occurred.”
State statutes say that certain categories of public officials, including elected county officials, could have a conflict of interest when they, their immediate families or a business with which they are associated could have a financial benefit or detriment from their official actions or decisions.
The statutes do not distinguish between for-profit and nonprofit businesses.
Borgeson has said that she and other advocates of the proposed $120 million project decided to use a nonprofit corporation to develop the justice center because that method worked well with the University of Nebraska’s Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center and in hopes that philanthropists would give money to the nonprofit corporation to support the project.
No private money is known to have been given or pledged. Michael Yanney, chairman emeritus of Burlington Capital Group and a co-chair of an effort to raise $500 million for UNMC, has played a leading role in formulating the proposed justice center project. So has Bruce Carpenter, a senior vice president of HDR Inc.
The nonprofit’s board has been working on professional services contracts with Burlington Capital to manage the project, Kiewit Corp. to lead construction and HDR Architecture. HDR currently has a contract with the building commission and Douglas County for pre-design services.