LINCOLN — Gov. Dave Heineman said Monday that he had heard rumors in the past about Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy involving other women but had regarded them as just that until getting “new and more information” late last week.
“I don't act on rumors,” the governor said. “Every time I became aware of something of a serious nature, I checked into it.”
On Friday, The World-Herald presented the governor with a summary of a monthlong investigation showing that Sheehy had made more than 2,300 calls on a state-issued cellphone to four women other than his wife over the past four years. One of the women told the newspaper that she had had an affair with the lieutenant governor since 2008.
Sheehy abruptly resigned Saturday morning, the day after the governor confronted him about the findings.
On Monday, a state political accountability official said Sheehy could face a fine and possibly jail time for making nonessential personal calls on a state cellphone.
Also on Monday, Heineman told reporters that while he had confronted his lieutenant governor at least twice about rumors, it was the information provided by The World-Herald on Friday that forced the situation to a head.
“Let's just say we had a conversation or two and leave it at that,” the governor said. “He made some personal decisions he shouldn't have.”
Public officials are rightly held to a higher standard of conduct, Heineman said, which includes not misusing state resources nor engaging in improper relationships.
“People have a right to expect us to lead by example in a variety of ways,” he said. “If it had occurred in the private sector, this wouldn't have been the front story in all of your media outlets.”
Sheehy, a 53-year-old former mayor of Hastings, was the presumed front-runner in the 2014 race for the Republican nomination for governor.
His resignation throws that race wide open. Some say it gives the Democratic Party a chance to grab a post it hasn't held since 1999. The departure has also left vacant the lieutenant governor's job.
Heineman said Monday that it may take “several weeks” to pick a replacement for the $75,000-a-year post.
He clarified that he's looking for someone who will promise not to run for governor in 2014. And he ruled out appointing any current state senator.
The Nebraska Constitution bars the appointment of any state senator to a new state job during a legislative session. That would force Heineman to wait until after the 2013 session ends June 5 if he wanted to appoint a state legislator to the lieutenant governor's job. Heineman said that is too long to wait.
State Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha had been rumored as a possible candidate for Sheehy's old job.
While Heineman had endorsed Sheehy in his now-scuttled 2014 run for governor, he said Monday that it was “highly, highly, highly, highly unlikely” that he would endorse another GOP candidate now.
The governor said he didn't want to appoint someone to the lieutenant governor's job who planned to run for governor in 2014 because he didn't want to give anyone an advantage in that race.
Contested primaries, he said, have helped make the GOP the dominant party in the state.
“I've got a lot of friends” who are looking at running, he said.
The prohibition on picking someone who will run in 2014 rules out University of Nebraska Regent Tim Clare of Lincoln, who is eyeing that race.
The governor repeated Monday that he found it doubtful Sheehy would face criminal charges for making the personal calls on a government phone.
But Frank Daley, executive director of the Nebraska Political Accountability and Disclosure Commission, said civil and criminal penalties are both a possibility.
State law prohibits the use of a state-issued cellphone for other than state business or “essential” personal uses, such as calling a spouse, a teacher, a day care center or a child at home.
Sheehy's calls could constitute a violation of a political accountability statute that prohibits state government officials from using government resources except for government purposes.
The accountability commission could decide to refer the matter for possible criminal prosecution to either the Nebraska Attorney General's Office or a county attorney, or the commission could pursue civil penalties on its own.
A criminal violation of the act is a Class III misdemeanor, punishable by up to three months in jail, a $500 fine or both. Any criminal cases would be tried in court before a judge.
If civil penalties were sought instead, it would be up to the nine-member commission to decide if a violation had occurred, after an investigation and a hearing. The commission can levy civil fines of up to $2,000 per violation, Daley said.
The governor said his office was reviewing Sheehy's records to determine whether the state will seek reimbursement for the improper phone calls.
Heineman's spokeswoman, Jen Rae Hein, said Sheehy's phone was on a plan that provided unlimited minutes, which complicates how to calculate which calls represented improper expenses and which were proper expenses.
Sheehy's state cellphone was deactivated Saturday. He has not responded to requests for comment since Friday, when The World-Herald first presented him with results of its investigation.
The probe revealed that Sheehy repeatedly called four single women, often late into the night, in calls that stretched 40 to 100 minutes. The women included two former elected officials widely known in their communities. One of them, a Bellevue doctor and former City Council member there, said she had a four-year affair with Sheehy. Another woman, a former school board president and Chamber of Commerce official in Holdrege, did not respond to numerous requests for an interview.
The two other women — one living in Texas, the other in Colorado — told the newspaper their late-night calls were not sexual in nature.
The vast majority of the calls came before Sheehy's wife of nearly 29 years, Connie, filed for divorce in July.
The governor appointed Sheehy in 2005.
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