Nebraska governor to face tough crowd at prisons hearing

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska’s governor will face a tough crowd when he testifies Wednesday before a special legislative committee — comprised of some of his harshest critics and vocal foes — investigating prison scandals.

Gov. Dave Heineman

In what is believed to be an unprecedented move in Nebraska history, the committee subpoenaed Gov. Dave Heineman to testify on what he knew about several prison scandals that have tainted his administration in the final months of his 10-year reign as governor.

The committee is chaired by Sen. Steve Lathrop, D-Omaha, who briefly considered running for governor this year and is ending his eight years as a senator by putting his lawyerly questioning skills to use on the committee. Each hearing begins with Lathrop’s step-by-step deconstruction of the testifier’s involvement in the scandals; his methodical questioning and cross-examining alone can take hours.

Then the rest of the committee gets a chance to ask questions. Those members include frequent Heineman foe Heath Mello, D-Omaha, Bob Krist, a Republican but occasional thorn in the governor’s side, and Ernie Chambers, a fiery independent senator ruthless in his criticism of the Heineman administration on many issues.

The governor and committee have waged a war of words for months through gubernatorial press conferences and verbal shots at hearings. While Heineman has tried to put the spotlight on “good time” (which cuts prisoners’ sentences in half automatically), the committee has zeroed in on prison overcrowding’s impact on sentence miscalculations, a lack of treatment in prisons and why prison employees didn’t treat or commit Nikko Jenkins, who went on to kill four Omahans within 11 days of his release last year.

The prison scandals have become fodder in Omaha’s tight congressional race. While the governor says Jenkins would’ve been imprisoned until the year 2021 if not for the good time law, Heineman himself supported good time until Jenkins went on his rampage. Heineman has also gone after Lathrop for injecting himself in the Omaha congressional race, by condemning Congressman Lee Terry for blaming Sen. Brad Ashford for Jenkins’ rampage.

Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop

“The department of corrections is run by Governor Heineman, not by the chair of the judiciary committee,” Lathrop said in an interview earlier this month. “I’m not pre-judging anything.”

Some lawmakers on the committee believe prison overcrowding drove many prison scandals, especially sentencing screwups.

“It’s abundantly clear that the scandals surrounding the department of corrections are the result of the mismanagement of the Department of Corrections,” Mello told Nebraska Watchdog earlier this month. “Prison overcrowding is driving the bus on every single Department of Corrections issue.”

Heineman is unlikely to find friends in the Republicans on the committee, which unanimously voted to subpoena him. Krist has been critical of the Heineman administration, pointing to a lack of treatment and overuse of solitary confinement of Jenkins prior to his release.

Much of Jenkins’ decade in prison was spent in solitary confinement, where he repeatedly begged for treatment and to be committed to the state psychiatric hospital.

Sen. Paul Schumacher, R-Columbus, has said he doesn’t think good time was really a factor in the Jenkins case.

“There was just clearly a miscarriage of common sense,” Schumacher told Nebraska Watchdog. “He was released into the public when staff members, psychologists… all those people were afraid of him.”

The roughest questioning is sure to come from Chambers, who is no fan of the governor and could ask him questions that seem more like speeches for hours if he wishes. During the committee’s Oct. 10 hearing, Chambers turned his questioning of two state ombudsmen into a tirade against Heineman, calling his “attacks” on the committee and Lathrop unwarranted, unprofessional and politically motivated.

Jenkins was released not because of the good time law, but because Heineman’s corrections employees fought the civil commitment Jenkins pleaded for and withheld information from a county attorney looking into a committal, Chambers said.

“For the hypocritical governor to now say this committee, Ashford or the Legislature is responsible for what Nikko Jenkins did is reprehensible,” Chambers said. “He is dishonest, and he is the liar because he knows the truth, and he did not tell it. The truth is, that the governor was so interested in cutting here and cutting there and cutting everywhere, that there was no money for programming, there was no money for adequate staff, nothing in the way of a plan to deal with overcrowding.”

“There did not have to be four murders. Those people did not have to die,” he said Oct. 10. “But they didn’t die because of Senator Ashford or Senator Lathrop… but because of the governor’s administration.”

Nebraska Watchdog will be live-tweeting during the hearing, which begins at 9 a.m. Wednesday at the capitol. Follow our tweets at @DeenaNEWatchdog.

Follow Deena on Twitter at @DeenaNEWatchdog

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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