NE GOP Senator Murante’s Unprecedented Conflict of Interest
While conflicts of interest arise and allegations of impropriety and corruption are commonplace in government, never before has it been as naked and blatant as Senator John Murante bill LB684, which brings the regulation of robocalls from under the regulation of the Public Service Commission to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commisssion.
The Omaha World Herald reported on the glaring conflict of interest that LB684 presents. Since 2006 Victory Enterprises has collected $550,943 from various Nebraska candidates for robocalls and other services. In Iowa the company provided over $11 million worth of services to candidates since 2006. One filing for Pillen for Regent had $68,594.38 sent straight to Muranate’s house, a clear and direct conflict of interest violation.
“We have the bare minimum of rules about conflicts of interest. The bottom line is you tell the public right from the start, and he didn’t do that. That’s wrong.” — Jack Gould, Common Cause Nebraska
Murante is no stranger to controversy. In 2011 a scandal emerged when he served as legislative aide for the redistricting drafters and he publicly bragged about carving out legislative district 49 for himself and launched his campaign to represent that newly drawn district. Another scandal Murante was involved with in 2013 was with the disgraced former Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps. Emails revealed they conspired to close polling places to drive down voter turnout. Murante is also not a stranger to consumer protections disrupting his personal businesses. Murante’s grandfather started “Big Fred’s Pizza” and while John was managing it in 2013 the health department cited them for 13 critical violations, including “slimy pepperoni”.
Before 2015, the Public Service Commission hadn’t yet formalized a policy of enforcement of robocalls as mandated by the laws of the State of Nebraska. Victory Enterprises, the largest robocall vendor in the state of Nebraska, operated without scrutiny from the Public Service Commission or any state agency.
In November 2014 Crystal Rhoades was elected to the Public Service Commission and worked to reign in the robocall vendors and enforce the rules regarding disclosure of robocall scripts. Commissioner Rhoades took prompt action in reforming the PSC to enforce the disclosure requirements and timely reporting of robocalls being placed, much to the dismay of Victory Enterprises and their state director John Murante, the author of LB684.
What are the motives behind LB684? Well, the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission is a non-elected body appointed by the Governor. They don’t have the regulatory teeth that the Public Service Commission has and wouldn’t be equipped to reign in the practices of robocall vendors.
In retaliation to the blowback Senator Murante has received from his disregard for conflict of interest laws, the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee has began a witch-hunt investigation of allegations that Commissioner Rhoades improperly provided robocall scripts to favor one candidate or another, based on an email sent to Tony Vargas’ campaign obtained via a public information request made by Nicole Fox’s campaign manager Rod Edwards.
What is troubling about this investigation of Commissioner Rhoades is that half of the members of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee Hilgers, Murante, Geist, and Bostelman hired Victory Enterprises for their campaigns.
Now, as far as the allegations go, the grievance is that Crystal Rhoades leaked robocall scripts to Tony Vargas’ campaign. Their nonsensical complaint doesn’t add up since these scripts are all open to the public and the PSC has never had a formal public record request procedure in place. Anyone who has contacted the PSC has been given the request through informal emails. Case in point, Dylan Frederick an employee of Victory Enterprises (and also a legislative staffer for Senator Murante) has made 6 requests and has been responded to all within a few business hours