About a month after he blew the whistle on a discrepancy in the State Treasurer’s office, a newspaper has blown the whistle on the alleged workday habits of State Auditor Charlie Janssen.
Janssen acknowledged the accuracy of an Omaha World-Herald report that he sometimes spends more of his Lincoln workday at a sports bar 16 blocks south of his Capitol office. The 47-year-old Republican also admitted that he’s not perfect but promised that he’s taking immediate steps to change.
The newspaper said its three-month investigation revealed late morning arrivals to work, three-hour lunches and afternoon absences from his office. Such activity easily could have been ignored in a state office that wasn’t really high profile until Lincoln businessman John Breslow was elected in 1991 on the promise that he would become the watchdog of state government. The Democrat Breslow was the first auditor in 52 years to not be named Ray Johnson. In a surprise move in 1994, Breslow changed his party affiliation to Republican. He was replaced in 1999 by former state Sen. Kate Witek of Omaha, a Republican who changed her party affiliation to Democrat in 2006. She served until 2007 and was replaced by another former Republican state Sen. Mike Foley. He currently is lieutenant governor. Republican Janssen, a former state senator, defeated former Sen. Amanda McGill, a Democrat in 2015.
Janssen said he sees no problem with the time he spends outside his office, saying his workday is finished early because he starts at 5 a.m. at his Fremont home. He also said he conducts business at those lunches and contends the $85,000 annual job is not based on hourly productivity.
Also, there’s no specific state rule on employees drinking alcohol over lunch, but individual agencies prohibit employees from being impaired while at work. But are we wrong to expect accountability from an elected official who manages an agency with a $2 million annual budget?
Three-hour lunches have been the running joke — or maybe a reality in some circles — of corporate America for years. But, the newspaper contends they saw Janssen take 10 of them in a 20-day period. Excuse me, that sounds like somebody is in denial about a problem bigger than absenteeism.
Janssen’s well-chronicled behavior is, sadly, not new to state government. You might remember a lieutenant governor who had to step down over the misuse of a state-issued cellphone. A former state treasurer also lost his re-election bid in the 1990s after it was revealed he used state pay warrants to buy candy for a lady friend in another state. He also used a state-owned landline to call that woman numerous times.
Capitol rumors surfaced at that time about one of his predecessors who used to take the daily state receipts in a bank bag and walk them from the Capitol to the National Bank of Commerce, about six blocks away, often stopping at a favorite bar for a mid-afternoon drink, or two. The popular version of the story also included reports that he once left the full bank bag on the bar and a bartender had to “chase him down” so the treasurer would have something to deposit when he got to the bank.
There also was talk — and some proof — that the best place to track down the 28-year veteran Lancaster County Assessor/Register of Deeds was at a downtown Lincoln bar and restaurant during or after the lunch hour. I made that contact several times.
Given that the auditor’s job is rooting out government mismanagement, waste and misconduct, we should be concerned. The office also audits local and state agencies, reports findings and makes correction suggestions. So, who should be auditing the auditor and making similar suggestions?
Janssen is seeking re-election, running against Democrat Jane Skinner of Omaha. Janssen said he wants citizens to give him a chance to be an even better state auditor. He said he wants voters to consider the work his office has done to correct problems of other government bodies so they can better serve the citizens.
Maybe the auditor needs to figure out how his own office can better serve the citizens. Being there during business hours would be a good start.
J.L. Schmidt, a registered Independent, is the Nebraska Press Association’s statehouse correspondent.