By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. — The Democratic candidate for Nebraska state auditor, Amanda McGill, spent more than $21,000 in campaign funds and nearly $13,000 in taxpayer money traveling the nation and world over the past eight years.
FREQUENT FLYER: Sen. Amanda McGill went to China in 2012 to learn about trade missions.
Before she was elected in 2006, she had never been outside the U.S. But since taking office she’s been to Germany, Italy, Turkey, China and New Zealand. She’s also flown around the country to Florida, Arizona, California, Colorado and Washington, D.C., on her campaign account.
According to the Legislature’s budget office, the amount she spent on taxpayers’ dime was above average for lawmakers during the past four years.
And while it’s perfectly legal to use campaign funds to travel as long as it’s not just personal travel, McGill has a reputation among some lawmakers for being an unusually frequent flyer.
Some are questioning how good of a steward of taxpayer dollars she would be.
“I question how good a steward they’re going to be if they’re going to be traveling with campaign money so excessively,” right-leaning political commentator Chris Scott said. “Not a lot of these trips have really translated into any type of legislation.”
McGill freely admits she has traveled more than most lawmakers during her eight years in office.
“I have traveled a lot more than the average senator,” she said in an interview. “I think it’s important to take every opportunity I can to better educate myself about what’s happening in other states and… our place in the entire world… so I can better understand how our laws impact us as well as what other states or countries are doing.”
Republicans have a grip on every statewide constitutional office, but McGill, 34, is a young rising young Democratic star with a shot at winning. Her opponent, Sen. Charlie Janssen, has more name recognition. But after dropping out of a crowded GOP primary for governor, he only won the GOP primary for auditor by 14 points against a virtual unknown, Larry Anderson, who refused to accept campaign contributions. McGill has raised nearly twice as much money for her campaign as Janssen.
McGill rarely used campaign funds to travel during her first few years in office, but by 2012 she was a jet-setter, going on about a dozen trips around the nation and world, according to her reports filed with the state Accountability & Disclosure Commission.
McGill said some of that travel is related to her position as president of the women’s legislative network for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“I did go to a lot of conferences,” in 2012, she said. But only one of the dozen flights appears to be an NCSL conference.
“There are some people that never go to any of these conferences,” McGill said.
Three of the flights were to Washington, D.C., for Pentagon briefings, as a member of a group called Young Elected Officials Network. She was invited to attend the Pentagon briefings because she introduced bills to translate military training into workforce experience and licensures, she said.
BRIEFING ROOM: Lincoln Sen. Amanda McGill attended three Pentagon briefings and attended a White House reception with her fiancee in 2012.
Scott called three trips in three months for White House briefings “a little excessive.”
“What is so urgent?” he said. “I don’t think a state senator needs to be in D.C. on three separate occasions in three months.”
She also attended a White House reception that year, and she and her fiancée got a tour of the White House and snapped a photo in the White House briefing room. She said she’s been to two White House receptions — one for St. Patrick’s Day and the other through the Young Elected Officials group — and they “tend to be networking” and “a little from the president.”
In 2010, she spent $900 in campaign funds for a lifetime membership to the American Council of Young Political Leaders, which coordinates international exchanges and sent her to New Zealand.
She said when you’re a young elected official, a lot of groups want to educate you because they “they see potential” in the future. Exchange programs have taken her to Germany and Turkey.
Of course, she’s not the only lawmaker who has participated in programs that can take them far and wide. In 1999, for example, Republican Jon Bruning, then a senator and now attorney general, took a 13-day trip to Argentina and Uruguay, compliments of the American Council of Young Political Leaders.
She said the trips back give her ideas for legislation – such as her successful 2011 bill allowing credit union savings incentive programs and a bill that would’ve allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to register to vote early.
She went to San Francisco to learn about the Delancey Street Foundation, where ex-cons, homeless people and drug addicts live in and run a waterfront home and operate restaurants, moving companies, cafes and bookstores. McGill serves on a board that’s trying to launch a similar program.
She went to Italy for several days in 2011 to discuss aging issues and the burden the boomer generation will have on the economy.
“It was fascinating and an important discussion,” she said.
The event was in Trieste, Italy, near Venice, which she traveled to on her own dime, she said.
She’s been to Turkey twice, through the Niagara Foundation, which promotes “global fellowship and inter-cultural dialogue among people of diverse backgrounds.” She said the foundation takes leaders to Turkey so they “have a better understanding of what Islam is and is not.”
“These things have helped me get a better understanding of Islamic cultures,” McGill said.
She also went to China for a trade mission in 2012, where she said she shadowed a couple of Illinois senators “as they made pitches to different folks around the country” and met with the president of the Hong Kong parliament. This was around the time Nebraska was opening a trade office in Shanghai.
“I got to see what a trade mission really should be,” she said. “I would argue going to China was incredibly beneficial.”
Scott questions the need to go on a trade mission to China when McGill has no background in international trade and no legislation sprang out of the trip.
“Is this really an appropriate, necessary trip?” he said. “You can find a need to go anywhere.”
He said it’s a legitimate question, since McGill is running to be state auditor, who acts as a guardian of taxpayer dollars.
“You’re effectively the watchdog of the state’s taxpayers, and if you’re going to run on that… your personal expenditures are going to be under a microscope,” he said.
McGill said she doesn’t understand why someone would have a problem with her educating herself “with hopes of being able to do something.”
She was looking at whether more money should be put into Nebraska’s trade office, for example. But last session she said she didn’t introduce legislation because her mother died.
McGill said she’s never had a complaint from a donor about how she spends their campaign donations. People who donate to her campaigns are investing in her and her potential as a leader, she said. It’s important that she grow in knowledge and learn about the world, she said.
“These aren’t taxpayer dollars,” she notes.
The only legislative money she spent was for NCSL events.
McGill said the trips are not junkets.
“I’m certainly doing things of value, educating myself,” McGill said.
Some lawmakers ramp up traveling in their last few years of office, Scott said. McGill is being term-limited out of office this year. He notes her travel has dropped off considerably since she decided to run for state auditor.
Her opponent, meanwhile, has spent virtually no campaign funds on out-of-state travel, save for $1,000 for tickets to attend a Mitt Romney fundraiser in 2012. Rod Edwards, Janssen’s campaign manager, said the state auditor’s job is to look out for taxpayers’ money.
“Using her campaign funds to travel the world shows a serious lack of judgment on her part,” he said. “How can Nebraskans trust her to look out for their money when the only two examples of her having any monetary oversight — the other as executive director of the Lincoln YWCA — have been failures?”
McGill was managing director when her former boss embezzled from the YWCA by stamping McGill’s name on checks without her permission. While announcing her candidacy, McGill mentioned the incident, saying she knows what it’s like to be the victim of embezzlement and learned the “importance of asking questions when things don’t seem quite right.”
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