By MARGERY A. BECK, Associated Press
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - A lower court was wrong to reverse a state accountability commission’s finding that two public employees violated state campaign laws, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The ruling comes in a case involving Northwest Rural Public Power District, based in Hay Springs. Rolland Skinner, the former general manager of NRPPD, and Les Tlustos, the utility’s consumer services director, were accused of using public money to pay for radio ads that questioned the cost-effectiveness of wind energy.
The ads ran in 2010 after Michael Van Buskirk, a wind energy proponent, announced his candidacy for the utility’s board of directors. Van Burkirk was a vocal critic of the board, accusing it of being unsupportive of local attempts to use wind power and of enacting policies that would hurt the potential to explore wind power.
Van Buskirk, who eventually won his race, asked Skinner and Tlustos to stop running the ads in October 2010. When they refused, he filed campaign finance complaints.
Last year, the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission fined the employees $2,000 each, saying they violated state law forbidding the use of public money to pay for campaign ads. A commission hearing officer determined the ads were politically motivated, airing many number of times in the month before the election but stopping shortly after. The hearing officer also noted the ads contradicted the campaign platform of Van Buskirk’s, the only candidate raising wind energy issues.
Skinner and Tlustos appealed, arguing that the ads were meant to inform the public of the utility’s position on wind energy. A Lincoln County District Court judge reversed the commission’s finding in 2013, saying the ads did not mention the election or Van Buskirk’s candidacy and suggested the ads may be protected free speech.
But the Nebraska Supreme Court said Friday the judge should have looked at more than the ads’ content and considered whether the ads were intended to influence the election. It also dismissed any notion that free speech rights were violated, saying Skinner and Tlustos did not assert that in their appeal. Neither can the men speak for the utility by claiming its free speech rights were violated, the unanimous opinion said.
The high court ordered the lower court to hear the case again.
An attorney for Skinner and Tlustos declined Friday to comment on the ruling.