LINCOLN — Nebraska’s top government watchdog often has spent more of his Lincoln workday at a sports bar than at his State Capitol office.
A three-month investigation by The World-Herald of State Auditor Charlie Janssen found a pattern of late-morning arrivals at his Capitol office, long lunches lasting up to three hours or more involving beer drinking, and little evidence that he was at the office in the afternoon.
In the past month, over the course of 20 working days, the newspaper observed the state auditor 10 times spending lengthy lunches at Brewsky’s, a popular sports bar about 15 blocks south of the State Capitol.
On five of those occasions, World-Herald reporters saw the auditor sharing pitchers of beer with a companion inside the tavern. Janssen and his companions were seen chatting and occasionally checking their cellphones. On most of the five occasions, at least two pitchers of beer were consumed.
The lunches often began between noon and 12:30 p.m. and sometimes ended as late as 3:45 p.m. or 3:55 p.m. Janssen then would get into his truck and drive away, not returning to the Capitol.
The 47-year-old Republican, who is up for re-election to his $85,000-a-year post, said he sees no problem with the time he spends outside his office.
“I get work done; I’m very productive,” he said Thursday.
He said his workday begins at 5 a.m. at his home in Fremont. He said he reads reports and “gets ahead” of activities at the auditor’s office.
“My work day is over early because I begin early in the morning,” he said.
When asked about drinking beer over lunch, and the amount of time he’s spending outside his Capitol office, Janssen said, “It’s unfortunate that you’re focusing on that.”
Sign up for World-Herald news alerts
Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.
To be sure, there is no requirement in state law or the Nebraska Constitution that calls for the auditor to keep regular business hours, or even work a 40-hour week. But the auditor is a state constitutional officeholder, like the state treasurer, attorney general, secretary of state and governor, and the job is considered full time.
It also appears that there’s no specific prohibition on state employees drinking alcohol over lunch. However, the head of the state employees union and the state employee relations manager said individual state agencies have policies prohibiting employees from being impaired while at work.
Janssen said he conducts business during those lunches, sometimes meeting with state senators. He said he doesn’t exclusively hold the meetings at Brewsky’s but said sometimes it’s more convenient to do business outside his office.
“Business isn’t always done inside the office,” he said. “The (cellphone) is very efficient. Computers are very efficient.”
Reporters who watched the auditor at the bar, however, did not see him taking notes. Mostly, he sipped beer, engaged in conversation and glanced at his cellphone.
Janssen said he does not use a laptop, only his cell phone.
Records supplied by the State Auditor’s Office indicated that he did not submit expenses for the lunches.
The World-Herald started looking at Janssen’s activities after spotting him leaving Brewsky’s in the middle of the workday and noticing that his vehicle often was not parked at the spot designated for the auditor on the north side of the Capitol. The state’s constitutional officers are provided parking stalls on the horseshoe-shaped driveway. The stalls can be clearly seen from nearby streets and sidewalks.
On most days from June 4 through Sept. 12, the newspaper checked whether Janssen’s vehicle, a white 2011 Ford F-15 pickup, was parked in his designated stall. On one of those days (July 19), a black SUV belonging to Janssen’s wife was parked in the stall.
There were 71 working days during that time span, and the paper checked on Janssen’s vehicle on 47 of those days, up to four or five times a day. On the days checked, Janssen’s vehicle was not seen parked at the State Capitol prior to 10 a.m. or at the Capitol in the afternoon, and was seen only once on a Friday.
Beginning Aug. 15, the newspaper started checking on the location of Janssen’s vehicle all but one day. A pattern emerged.
On 10 of 20 working days checked, Janssen’s distinctive pearly-white pickup was seen parked outside Brewsky’s, at 1602 South St.
Most often, he was accompanied by the legislative liaison in his office, former State Sen. Russ Karpisek, but he was also seen with another former senator, Ken Schilz, who is now a lobbyist.
Neither Karpisek nor Schilz responded to messages left Thursday.
John Antonich, the head of the state employees union, the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, said every state agency has a policy that prohibits employees from using drugs or alcohol in the workplace and coming to work impaired. Agencies, he said, are allowed to test employees for intoxication.
Antonich said he could not comment on management personnel, like the state auditor, because his union does not represent them.
But if one of his union members was taking three-hour lunches where alcohol was consumed, “that would be a definite no-no.”
The auditor is the state’s top government watchdog, charged with rooting out government mismanagement, waste and misconduct. The office conducts regular financial audits of local and state agencies, reports findings and makes suggestions on corrective steps. In extreme cases, the office refers findings to prosecutors for possible criminal charges.
Janssen’s office has churned out a steady stream of audits during his four years as auditor. Its website said the office had completed 153 audits as of Tuesday, and has 31 more audits in progress.
His office has produced some high-profile audit reports, including one on the state’s troubled prison system, one that helped lead to the resignation of the state tourism director, and another that questioned millions of dollars of spending by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
In recent months, audits have led to embezzlement charges against a city clerk in Craig, Nebraska, and a landfill worker in York County.
But Janssen has rarely commented publicly on his office’s audits. He said that’s because he has adopted a lower profile than previous auditors so the audits don’t become a “publicity stunt.”
“It’s not our goal to hurt an agency (via an audit),” he said. “We want to help agencies get better.”
In his 2014 campaign materials, he was described as sharing the “strong work ethic” of all Nebraskans.
When asked about that on Thursday, Janssen responded that he is a “hard-working” person who has built a business and whose auditor’s office has produced good work.
“I’m here every day,” Janssen said, “pretty much every day.”
Janssen, who served in the Legislature from 2009 to 2014, was a candidate for governor in 2014 before leaving a crowded GOP field of governor hopefuls to run for auditor. The state auditor’s seat became open when then-Auditor Mike Foley was tapped by Gov. Pete Ricketts to be his running mate as lieutenant governor.
Janssen’s auditor candidacy drew some controversy due to his role as co-owner and CEO of Fremont-based Ready-Tech-Go (RTG) Medical, a temporary medical staffing company that contracts with the State of Nebraska. As of this week, RTG Medical had $524,000 in contracts with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. One requires RTG to provide a qualified speech language pathologist for developmentally disabled state clients at a rate of $84 an hour. HHS is the state’s largest agency and a frequent target of audits by the State Auditor’s Office.
Janssen asked for a legal opinion about his potential conflict of interest in 2015. He then filed a statement required by law that he had a potential conflict, since he co-owned a company that contracted with the state and was head of an agency that could audit his company’s contracts. He said he is not involved with the company’s day-to-day operations at this time.
But he said he works out in the morning at the Fremont office of his business, then travels to Lincoln to the auditor’s office. He said he usually arrives at 9:30 a.m. But the newspaper, during its monitoring, didn’t observe his vehicle at the Capitol before 10 a.m.
To be clear, there were days over the past three months when the newspaper was unable to monitor the auditor.
During the past 20 working days, there were five in which his vehicle was not observed at either the Capitol or Brewsky’s. On one day, he tweeted that he was at Husker Harvest Days in Grand Island. Last Friday, he said he was at his Fremont company due to a death involving a company employee.
Janssen faces a challenger in November in his bid for a second, four-year term. Democrat Jane Skinner, a part-time specialist at an Omaha library and political novice, has not mounted a substantial campaign. She said she lacks the funds to buy yard signs.