Emails Show Shane Osborn Using Taxpayer-Funded Staff For What Looks Like Campaign Politics

Alex Pappas Political Reporter
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While treasurer of Nebraska, Shane Osborn and his taxpayer-funded staff occasionally used email to conduct what looks like campaign politics, as documents provided to The Daily Caller indicate.

Osborn, a former Navy pilot famously held captive by the Chinese, is a Republican now running for the U.S. Senate. The GOP primary is Tuesday. He served as treasurer of Nebraska from 2007 to 2011.

The emails — obtained by a source through a state open records request and provided to The Daily Caller — reveal private conversations between Osborn and his staff about things like giving gifts to donors and helping a contributor with official state business.

Osborn allies deny the emails reflect anything improper. Osborn, the argument goes, didn’t run for re-election as treasurer so there was no actual campaign his aides could have been helping at the time.

But among the most questionable emails in the open records request: In 2008, Osborn emailed two taxpayer-funded aides and asked them to look into making copies of a television segment because he wanted to show it to “potential donors.”

“Please get me a file of the Fox News Sunday power player of the week dedicated to the Heroes Flights,” Osborn wrote in a July 22, 2008 email to his state government aides. “I need to be [able] to make a DVD out of it to show some potential donors! We should be able to get this through a 501C3 correct? Trent, you research that part for me.”

The email was addressed to “Don,” as in communications director Don Aguirre and “Trent,” as in executive assistant Trent Fellers.

Osborn aides point out that the Nebraska code prohibits political activity during office hours and the email was sent at 5:44 p.m. Official office hours, according to a cached version of Osborn’s official website, were from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m..

But while the Nebraska code says employees are prohibited from participating in political activities “during office hours,” it also says they cannot do political work “when otherwise engaged in the performance of his or her official duties.”

After publication of this story, Osborn’s team also argued his request for his taxpayer staff to give donors a DVD was not actually political: the 501c3 mentioned in the e-mail, they said, was the Nebraska Soldiers Foundation, which Osborn set up to help military families with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The email provided to TheDC doesn’t show if Osborn and his staff were using official government or personal email accounts. But at least one person was using an official account, because the emails were obtained through an open records request.

On March 14, 2007, Osborn instructed state employee Fellers, his executive assistant who was also director of Long-Term Care Savings Plan program, to obtain the password for his personal campaign email account at OsbornForTreasurer.com and “monitor it for me on the laptop.”

Asked about this, Osborn allies said Osborn was receiving official work email on his campaign account so he asked his executive assistant to routinely check the account for any official business that may come through.

One staffer, Alex Kauffman, who was director of unclaimed property under Osborn, also sent a number of emails to Osborn with references to future campaigns, donors and how to get Osborn more exposure on the radio.

“I’m planning on working extensively on the ‘Treasurer’s Legislative Package,’” Kauffman wrote in a Sept. 18, 2008 email to Osborn, “which I believe is the best thing we can do so that you can campaign that you have a ‘record of successful legislative leadership.’”

On July 30, 2008, Kauffman wrote to Osborn and other staffers about helping a “donor” who filed a claim for unclaimed property. “Do you want to call her and recommend that we transfer them back into her name so she can sell them when she’ll get a better return? You can tell her the State will pay the transfer fees.”

Osborn allies said what Kauffman offered for the donor — Pam McCabe of Lincoln Right to Life — is no different that what any person would receive for an unclaimed property claim.

While not necessarily campaign related, Kauffman — who did not immediately return an email seeking comment — also played a role in trying to get Osborn more exposure in the media.

On June 22, 2007, Kauffman emailed Osborn, and other members of the staff, about buying PSA radio ads for the state treasurer’s office. In it, he suggested the government spend extra money on radio stations that would put Osborn on the air.

“I told Eric Dinger to feel free to spend a few extra bucks on each station if they will arrange a telephone interview with Shane during their morning show,” Kauffman said in the email.

Reached by phone on Wednesday, Dinger — an outside vendor who used to own the company Thought District — recalled working with Osborn’s team on the ads. But he disputed that it was odd for there to be advertising deals that included interview time.

“It’s pretty standard,” Dinger told TheDC of advertising deals that include interview opportunities.

Osborn is in a tight race with Midland University president Ben Sasse. Also in the contested GOP race is Sid Dinsdale, the chairman of Pinnacle Bank.

Asked to comment on this story, the Osborn campaign took a shot at Sasse.

“In the final days of the campaign, Ben Sasse continues to mislead Nebraskans with a negative campaign and false attacks fueled by Washington, D.C. special interest groups,” spokesman Bill Novotny said. “Shane Osborn’s record as state treasurer is well known to voters and one of the reasons he will win this coming Tuesday. A few cherry-picked e-mails taken out of context and shopped by Sasse and his allies changes nothing and demonstrates one thing: they are growing increasingly desperate.”

Here are screenshots of the emails:

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Alex Pappas