Nebraska death penalty petition drive cost more than $900K

By GRANT SCHULTE

Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A group seeking to reinstate Nebraska’s death penalty spent more than $900,000 on its effort to place the issue on the November 2016 ballot, according to campaign disclosures filed Monday.

Nebraskans for the Death Penalty spent nearly $346,000 in the latest filing period on staffing, consultants, travel costs and legal fees, among other minor expenses.

The disclosure period from July 28 through Sept. 28 covers the final weeks of the group’s statewide signature-gathering campaign. Nebraskans for the Death Penalty announced in August that it had collected nearly 167,000 signatures after lawmakers voted in May to abolish capital punishment despite the objections of Gov. Pete Ricketts. Enough of those signatures have already been verified to force a referendum and prevent the repeal from going into effect before then.

The largest contributions in the last reporting period were $100,000 from Robert Mercer, a New York hedge fund operator, and $100,000 from the Washington-based Judicial Crisis Network, according to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission.

Mercer, a computer scientist, has given millions to conservative Super PACs and is a major financial supporter of Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, of Texas. The Judicial Crisis Network is a conservative group that describes itself as ``dedicated to strengthening liberty and justice in America.’’ It previously gave $200,000 to Nebraskans for the Death Penalty.

The group had previously raised more than $652,000, including $200,000 from Ricketts and $100,000 from his father, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, but neither man contributed in the latest period.

Nebraskans for the Death Penalty spokesman Chris Peterson said his group received contributions from more than 600 individual donors, mostly in small amounts that fell below the $250 reporting threshold.

The filing revealed the names of 56 donors, including University of Nebraska Regent Hal Daub, Falls City businessman and GOP activist Charles Herbster, and C.L. Werner, the CEO of the Omaha-based Werner Enterprises. Contributions also came from state Sen. Merv Riepe of Ralston and the campaign accounts of Sens. John Kuehn or Heartwell, Lydia Brasch of Bancroft and Jim Smith of Papillion.

Even though the election is more than a year away, a spokesman for the group said its leaders will continue raising money to pay its legal fees for a pending lawsuit filed by death penalty opponents. They also are planning a media campaign as the election nears.

“We know opponents are and will continue to be well-funded,” said spokesman Chris Peterson.

Nebraskans for Public Safety, a group that opposed the referendum drive, reported raising nearly $462,000 since the signature-gathering campaign began.

The largest donor by far was the Massachusetts-based Proteus Action League, a progressive social justice group that has help finance death penalty repeal efforts in other states. The nonprofit donated $400,000 in a previous reporting period.

“Our campaign is proud to have garnered strong grassroots support over the summer in addition to national support from a very diverse set of donors,” said Danielle Conrad, executive director of Nebraskans for Public Safety. “Almost 300 Nebraskans have added contributions large and small to help our campaign educate Nebraskans about why the death penalty is broken and belongs in our past.”

Nebraskans for Public Safety spent nearly $456,000, ending the reporting period with a little more than $6,000 in cash-on-hand, while Nebraskans for the Death Penalty reported $10,350.

Nebraskans for the Death Penalty needed roughly 57,000 valid signatures from registered voters to force a statewide referendum, and double that number to immediately halt the death penalty repeal that was scheduled to go into effect last month.

The Nebraska secretary of state’s office reported Friday that more than 136,000 of those signatures had been verified by counties.

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