Public officials need to be held to the proper standard in the use of taxpayer-funded resources. A new state audit raises serious concern that Jeff Fassett, director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, failed those obligations.
The possible law and policy violations stemming from five “questionable” trips, the audit says, include official misconduct, improper use of a state vehicle, improper use of a state credit card for fuel and food and falsification of a state travel log. The 65-page audit, covering July 2017 through December 2018, has been forwarded to the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office for possible prosecution.
Fassett was authorized to work remotely from Cheyenne, Wyoming, where his wife still lives. She was diagnosed with cancer last spring, according to the Governor’s Office. It’s understandable that Fassett would be given flexibility under those circumstances, but that doesn’t relieve him from his duty to follow state law and policies in all regards.
His travel log for July 2017, was incorrect, for example, by claiming he made a round trip between Lincoln and Kimball, Nebraska, in a state vehicle for a work-related meeting. When questioned about the inaccurate mileage figures, Fassett acknowledged he had driven to his home in Cheyenne and to a doctor’s appointment in Fort Collins, Colorado.
The discrepancy amounted to about 587 miles in a state car for personal activities, the audit said. Fassett’s activities on that trip, the audit said, “give rise to serious concerns regarding apparent violation of both specific departmental policies and state law.” Additionally, auditors could not confirm that a meeting in Kimball had ever been scheduled.
Fassett recently reimbursed the state $708 for overpayment of travel expenses that he said were identified in the report.
Nebraskans now will wait to see whether the Attorney General’s Office finds the audit findings sufficient to warrant prosecution. The Governor’s Office, which has indicated it takes this matter seriously, has a decision to make, too, in whether Fassett should be retained as head of a major state department, given the audit findings.
Any state employee, of whatever rank, has an absolute obligation to follow the statutory and policy restrictions on personal use of state resources, and the penalties need to be commensurate with the level of offense.