A letter to Nebraska Watchdog in response to your story on Amanda McGill

UPDATE NUMBER 2: After a few days of waiting, I finally got a detailed breakdown of travel expenses paid for by the State of Nebraska for the last 8 years. You will not f**king believe what I found.

1.) Only once in 8 years was Amanda in the top 5 in travel spending.

2.) In the last 8 years, one person overwhelmingly dominated travel expenditures: Deb Fischer. Before becoming a US Senator, Fischer racked up (you will not believe this) $27,772 just from 2006-2011. In 2007-2008, Fischer spent $9638.

3.) The top 3 total spenders in the last 8 years: Fischer ($27,772), Vickie McDonald ($19,638), and Bill Avery ($18,917). During that same span, Amanda spent $12,865. In 8 years, Amanda spent less THAN HALF of what Fischer spent in 5.

4.) Let’s give the other side their due: In 2012-2013, Amanda was the top spender…by $11. For context, she spent $62 more than the person who spent the 10th most.

These numbers were provided to me by Diane Nickolite, the State Legislative Business Manager and the same person who provided numbers to Deena for the story detailed below. I would be happy to provide them to you upon request, just leave a comment with your email and I’ll forward the PDF I was provided.

Between this revelation and the fact that the Executive Director or the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission, Frank Daley, conclusively said that it is impossible to know how much each senator spent on travel from their campaign, I can now, officially, conclude that this story was a lie or a complete misrepresentation of the facts. Time for another letter to the editor…

UPDATE: I spent 2 days researching this story, contacted a half dozen folks, and combed through hundreds of campaign finance disclosures. This was the entire response I received from the EIC of Nebraska Watchdog:

Joe

So, there you have it, it’s okay for THIS story to be full of inaccuracies and completely biased because others are probably biased on the other side. FYI: I responded with a simple request for him to address the errors and inaccuracies. I have not heard back.

Here’s the original letter:

Dear Mr. Jordan,

I am writing this in response to a story by Ms. Deena Winter titled “Candidate for state auditor was a frequent flyer as senator.”

Your mission statement reads, in part, as follows: “The goal of Nebraska Watchdog is to ensure good government with unbiased news reporting.” I find the aforementioned article to be in violation of your self-declared principles in the following regards:

A review of Senator Amanda McGill’s campaign declaration of expenses reveals a total of $15,629 used for travel, not “more than $21,000.” 

Winter writes: “According to the Legislature’s budget office, the amount she spent on taxpayers’ dime was above average for lawmakers during the past four years.” She did not reveal how much above average or what average was. Nor did Winter mention that Senators are given a stipend annually, whether they choose to use it is up to them. The ambiguity present in presenting comparative judgement, “above average,” without context is intentionally misleading.

I pressed Winter to provide the numbers she used. After she refused for some time, she finally provided only the last 4 years of data. The average amount that Senator McGill was “above average” compared with her peers was $240 annually. Only when aggregated and disguised do those few hundred dollars add up to accusations of a “frequent flyer.”

Winter writes: “McGill has a reputation among some lawmakers for being an unusually frequent flyer.” At no point does she provide any evidence or grounds for this accusation. Not even in anonymous fashion. Winter’s assertion is presented without a single piece of evidence that any lawmaker has this opinion of her. This amounts to rumor mongering, which is beneath a publication that prides itself on “unbiased” news reporting.

The expert that Winter uses to critique Senator McGill is credited as a “right-leaning political contributor.” No mention of credentials is made beyond that. And yet he is promoted as an expert, quoted as explaining “Not a lot of these trips have really translated into any type of legislation.” This is inaccurate. The following bills McGill introduced just in the 103rd legislative session relate directly to trips she took:

  • LB186 – About juvenile facilities
  • LB255 – About human trafficking
  • LB933 – About labor trafficking and human trafficking

Winter writes: “As an aside, McGill also spent $275 to pay a fee for filing her campaign report late last year.” Investigative journalism without bias does not allow for opinionated “asides” that provide a fact unrelated to the story in order to introduce a negative comment on the subject.

Rod Edwards, the campaign manager for McGill’s opponent, Chris Janssen, is given space in which to launch an unfounded attack that constitutes clear bias “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?” The decision of Winter to include mention of a subject unrelated to travel is inappropriate. Then Winter expands on the unrelated incident: “McGill was program director when her former boss embezzled from the YWCA by stamping McGill’s name on checks without her permission.” The decision to include this crime for which someone else has been sentenced and accepted responsibility has no place in a story about travel expenses.

Winter also makes assertions that Senator McGill’s campaign expenditures seem out of line; however, a brief personal review of legal forms required by such campaigns revealed how impossible it is to make a comparative analysis. While Senator McGill itemizes her expenses, others do not. For example, Senator Al Davis cited “Supplies and Gas” at an expense of $43,907 from his campaign fund. It is unclear if that is related to travel. Senator Annette Dubas listed no description for an expense of $54,703 in 2013. For Winter to suggest that McGill’s spending is either (A) excessive or (B) that her use of campaign funds is suspicious, is completely unsupportable given the information.

To verify this, I reached out to the Executive Director or the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission, Frank Daley. Daley told me “Because reporting of expenses is not by category, we have no way of electronically extracting the information you are seeking from the campaign statements on file.  The only thing that I can suggest is that you may look at the campaign statements of those candidates you are interested in and take note of those reported expenditures that appear to suggest travel expenses.” To be clear, in order to know how Senator McGill stacks up to others, Winter would have had to have combed through individual campaign expense forms as I did for the last day.

I refer  you to items 7 and 8 of the Nebraska Revised Statue 49-1446.03, which states that campaign funds can be used for the following:

(7) Meals, lodging, and travel by an officeholder related to his or her candidacy and for members of the immediate family of the officeholder when involved in activities related to his or her candidacy;

(8) Conference fees, meals, lodging, and travel by an officeholder and his or her staff when involved in activities related to the duties of his or her public office;

Senator McGill chose to use money that was NOT taxpayer money for trips within her function as a state senator. Not only is that legal, as you can tell above, it’s not something to be disparaged as “jet-setting” and does not make her a “frequent flyer” as Winter describes. When McGill was in China regarding foreign trade, a huge relationship for the Nebraska agriculture sector, Winter brings in “right-wing political commentator Chris Scott.”

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.

Again, though introduced as an expert, Scott has no credentials. Perhaps that explains why he doesn’t connect an increase in Nebraskan politicians having a relationship in China with opening the first Nebraskan trade office in Shanghai the following year

I believe that having a journalistic site that holds politicians accountable so that the public can understand the truth is vital. As such, I would hope that you would chalk this article up as a largely unneeded piece and either delete it, rework it, or provide something like this letter to clarify these problems. Whether or not you agree with Senator McGill’s positions, her experience and record needs to be presented fairly. Ms. Winter’s article is poorly constructed either by accident or intent, and it would best serve your site and Nebraskans to eliminate it immediately.

Sincerely,
Ryan Syrek

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