In a little over a decade, Attorney General Jon Bruning has amassed a burgeoning business portfolio that puts him squarely in the multimillionaires' club.
He has done it all while serving in office and earning $95,000 a year.
The 42-year-old owns interests in several Nebraska banks, storage companies in Omaha and Des Moines and retirement homes in Kansas worth between $12 million and $61 million, according to federal financial reports that require candidates to broadly identify their net worth.
The Republican Senate candidate also is heavily in debt.
He owes several Nebraska banks between $10 million and $35 million — the money borrowed to fund some of his investments.
Bruning's financial dealings became an issue Wednesday after Nebraska Democrats questioned how the attorney general found time to make all those investments — and to serve on his companies' boards of directors — while working for the state.
Democrats accused Bruning of being a “part-time” attorney general in a full-page advertisement in the Omaha World-Herald. The ad played upon Bruning's recent verbal misstep, in which he compared people on welfare to raccoons.
Bruning has since apologized for the remarks.
Bruning countered that his involvement in the companies was minimal and that he considers himself an investor and not a businessman. He also says the federal report does not give a good depiction of his net worth, because it requires that only a range of assets and liabilities be reported. He says a good share of his assets are held via bank loans.
Bruning is one of five Republicans vying for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate and the chance to run for the seat held by U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat.
As the GOP frontrunner, Bruning has drawn the most scrutiny from Nelson, who also is a multimillionaire. The 70-year-old is worth between $6.5 million and $13.7 million, according to federal financial reports.
Nelson has not made a final decision on whether he plans to run. He is considered by Republicans in Washington, D.C., to be among the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents. However, he has assembled a campaign team that is trying to lay the groundwork for a successful campaign if Nelson seeks a third term.
The advertisement against Bruning can be viewed as an attempt to soften support for the Nebraska GOP's leading senatorial candidate. In addition to his personal finances, Democrats also took Bruning to task for his growing budget in the Attorney General's Office, saying the office budget has grown 81 percent during the past eight years.
Bruning says his investments have taken little of his time because, he says, he does not get heavily involved in the companies even though he serves on their boards of directors.
“I don't have anything to do with it day to day,” Bruning said.
He also says he was “incredibly fortunate” as a young man out of law school to land a sales position at Vital Learning Corp. of Omaha, which sells personal-training programs to businesses. He says he made a “lot of money” at the company, although he declined to say exactly how much.
He said he then made more money by investing in the robust markets of the 1990s. “I was able to successfully invest that money in the stock market in the early 1990s,” he said.
Bruning has been in public office for 15 years — most of his adult career.
He ran for and won a seat in the Nebraska Legislature about two years after he finished law school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The son of a college professor and a college administrator, Bruning worked as an attorney in a solo practice throughout his six years as a state lawmaker, service for which he was paid $12,000 a year.
In 2002, he won the attorney general's seat, earning a salary of $95,000 a year.
His public wages are just a small piece of his financial pie.
Over the past decade, Bruning has invested heavily in numerous businesses, most notably a banking company that purchased three small Nebraska banks in Madison, Davenport and Pender in 2006 and 2007. His company, Frontier Holdings LLC, is in the process of purchasing a fourth bank in Richardson County.
His banking interests are worth between $6 million and $30 million, according to federal reports.
His growing wealth has allowed him several luxuries, including one-fourth ownership of a skybox at the university's Memorial Stadium worth about $20,000 a year and part ownership of a $675,000 “cabin” on the Platte River.
Most of Bruning's investments have a common thread — old college fraternity buddies.
Bruning was a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon. Many of his fraternity brothers are now his fellow investors. For example, two of the original investors with Bruning in his banking company were David Rogers and David Gale — both Sigma Phi brothers.
Gale, who is the son of Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale, said he originally came up with the idea to purchase small Nebraska banks. He said he approached Bruning, who quickly agreed with the investment.
Bruning says he prefers to invest with people he knows and trusts. He also says he prefers to invest in Nebraska businesses. “I have been fortunate enough to pick partners who are honest, decent and good at business,” he said.
Another major Bruning investment is with an Omaha man who is behind the Dino Storage company — David Paladino.
Paladino, who also owns the real estate company Landmark Management Group, said he was looking for an investor in a Bellevue storage project when Doug Ayer, a former Omaha banker and former college roommate of Bruning's, suggested Bruning as a partner.
Ayer now works for Frontier Holdings.
Bruning eventually invested in the Bellevue company, Cornhusker Road LLC, to the tune of about $350,000 and now owns 50 percent of it. The company is worth between $5 million and $25 million, according to federal reports.
It was such a successful partnership that Bruning decided to invest in an additional storage facility in Des Moines with Paladino. He now owns 50 percent of the Iowa venture known as SE 14 LLC.
Paladino said he had never met Bruning before their initial business investment. He also said that Bruning does “nothing” for the company. He considers him a “silent partner,” which works perfectly for Paladino.
“He doesn't do anything. I do 100 percent of everything,” Paladino said. “Everything is on me. He doesn't make any decisions at all.”
Contact the writer: