By GRANT SCHULTE
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska death penalty opponents filed a lawsuit Thursday arguing that a ballot measure to reinstate the punishment is invalid because Gov. Pete Ricketts, who helped bankroll the petition drive, wasn’t listed as a sponsor.
The lawsuit in Lancaster County District Court says Ricketts should have been named because of his donations to the Nebraskans for the Death Penalty campaign and his close ties to its managers. It also accuses Ricketts of violating his duty to execute and enforce all state laws - even if he disagrees with them.
“All Nebraskans support our robust tradition of direct democracy - including referendum campaigns,” said Alan Peterson, an ACLU lobbyist and lead attorney in the lawsuit. “In the case of the death penalty referendum it is clear that Gov. Ricketts and his supporters failed to do their due diligence and appeared to have cut corners.”
Lawmakers voted in May to abolish capital punishment, narrowly overriding the Republican governor’s veto, prompting Nebraskans for the Death Penalty to circulate the petition. It announced last month that it had collected nearly 167,000 signatures, more than three times the minimum number needed to place the issue on the November 2016 ballot. Counties are now verifying the signatures.
Petition signers should have been told the “true and actual sponsors” of the referendum drive because it could have influenced their decision, the lawsuit says. It also argues that Ricketts used his title as governor to raise money in letters to residents over the summer.
The group raised a total of more than $652,000 from 40 individual donors and seven groups classified as businesses, political action committees and other entities. Ricketts had given $200,000 as of the last filing deadline on July 31, and has since said that he may contribute more. His father, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, had donated $100,000, according to the latest disclosures. The full amount spent won’t be known until the next filing deadline on Sept. 28.
Nebraskans for the Death Penalty spokesman Chris Peterson called the lawsuit a “political attack” and said the group believes a judge will find the group “fully complied with Nebraska law.”
Ricketts was in China as part of an international trade mission, and a spokeswoman said he was unavailable to comment.
The petition drive was managed by Jessica Moenning, a Republican political consultant who is on the governor’s private payroll. Peterson worked on the governor’s campaign and inauguration teams.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Lincoln residents and longtime death penalty opponents Christy and Richard Hargesheimer, who were identified as taxpayers concerned about the petition process. The legal team also includes Jerry Soucie, Amy Miller and Christopher Eickholt, who have fought for years to repeal the punishment.
“Powerful interests like the Governor are not entitled to their own set of rules to pursue their own political objectives,” Christy Hargesheimer said. “We are looking forward to having these issues decided outside of the political arena and before an impartial judiciary.”
The defendants are Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty and three people who signed on as group board members: Omaha City Council member Aimee Melton, Lincoln attorney Bob Evnen and Judy Glasburner of Geneva.
Nebraska hasn’t executed an inmate since 1997, and the state currently lacks two of the three drugs in its protocol. The Department of Correctional Services spent more than $54,000 to buy the drugs from Chris Harris, a supplier in India, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said they can’t be imported.
Harris tried unsuccessfully to ship the drugs last month via FedEx, Department of Correctional Services spokesman James Foster said Thursday. The package was flagged because of “improper or missing international paperwork” and was returned Sept. 4, according to FedEx’s online tracking page.