Omaha state Sen. Brenda Council failed to report using campaign funds for gambling and will plead guilty to two misdemeanors, Attorney General Jon Bruning said Wednesday.
Bruning said between January 2010 and this July, Council withdrew more than $63,000 in campaign funds at various casinos. She also deposited more than $36,000 in an apparent attempt to repay the account. And none of the prohibited transactions were reported on her campaign finance statements.
The attorney general spelled out the consequences at an afternoon news conference. “Today at 1:30 my office filed charges against state Sen. Brenda Council for two counts of abuse of public records regarding unreported campaign finance transactions. Sen. Council has agreed to plead guilty to the charges in District Court next Tuesday at 1:30,” Bruning said.
Council released a statement apologizing to her family, her contributors, her supporters and the public. “I made an error in judgment and I take full responsibility for that error,” she said. Council pledged to pay back the remaining amount of campaign funds she borrowed. And she said she’s currently getting treatment for a gambling addiction.
Council is running for reelection against former Sen. Ernie Chambers to represent north Omaha’s District 11 in the Legislature.
In her statement, Council did not say she would drop out of the race. Instead, she said, she would not “give up or quit fighting for the issues that are truly important to North Omaha – good jobs, strong schools, safe neighborhoods and increased investments in our community.
“I will continue to meet and talk with members of the 11th District in my campaign for re-election,” she said, adding “I have always and will continue to do what is in the best interest of my community, my district and my state.”
Chambers said he would not call on Council to withdraw from the race, and said he takes no delight in the situation. “My history when it comes to people who have committed offenses is not one of harsh punishment,” Chambers said. “She is a lawyer. She knows she violated the law. She knows the law must take its course. But all that having been said, I do not want to see anything happen to her that could damage her further. She has damaged herself already as much as anything could damage a person.”
Bruning said his office got a tip about Council’s actions from a law enforcement source this spring. He said when his office contacted her Monday, Council was “contrite.” Bruning said he could have charged her with a felony, but thinks the charges are appropriate. “I believe that charging her, as a state senator, this will be a very public and difficult thing for her to deal with. And so I believe this penalty is – these charges are appropriate and fair.”
The crime Council is charged with, abuse of public records, is punishable by a maximum of six months in prison and/or a $1,000 fine for each count. Bruning said his office would not recommend either for or against jail time when Council appears in court.
Bruning also said he does not think the action will affect Council’s legal eligibility for office. The Nebraska Constitution says people convicted of felonies are ineligible for office, but contains no such provision for misdemeanors. Bruning noted that in 2005, Council had signed a voluntary ban on her presence at a casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa. When she later violated that ban, she was first warned, then was arrested for trespassing.
Council addressed that situation in a 2008 interview when it was raised by her opponent that year, Dennis Womack. “I think what people ought to focus on is that it was a decision on my part that that was an activity that I should discontinue. And the error that was committed was going into a facility, not for the purpose of gambling, and having the effect of my decision to discontinue that activity come back to haunt me,” she said at the time.
Wednesday, Bruning said he respected Council’s long career in public service. Before serving in the Legislature, she served on the Omaha City Council and school board, and narrowly lost a race for mayor of that city.
Bruning also described his office’s decision about what charges to bring. “We suspected and were correct that Sen. Council would be willing to plead guilty to misdemeanors, whereas felonies would require a protracted fight,” he said.