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Consultant claims Omaha councilman bailed on bills; councilman alleges negligence

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Take a look at the seven current members of the Omaha City Council.

Omaha City Councilman Danny Begley has filed counterclaims in an ongoing legal battle between his campaign and a political consulting firm that claims he failed to pay for services during the 2021 election cycle.

Cerberus Strategies, a political consulting firm headed by Benjamin Onkka, sued Begley for nonpayment in February, alleging that Begley stiffed the firm on more than $11,000. In a filing Thursday, Begley filed counterclaims alleging insubordination by Onkka and his spouse Crystal Rhoades, who also advised Begley’s campaign, and requesting damages.

Begley represents midtown and part of downtown Omaha on the City Council. He was first elected in 2021, narrowly beating Cammy Watkins in both the primary and general elections.

Under a contract extending from Nov. 11, 2020, to early May 12, 2021, Cerberus Strategies was to receive $5,000 per month to perform a variety of services for Begley’s campaign: event planning, volunteer training and management, social media management and debate preparation, among others. The contract stipulated that, if Begley won the general election, Cerberus would receive a $10,000 “win” bonus.

In its lawsuit, Cerberus asserts Begley failed to pay the bonus and initially didn’t pay the final $5,000 monthly fee, though he eventually paid a prorated amount of $3,750 for May, which Cerberus said reduced the outstanding balance owed to $11,250.

But in a filing this past week, Begley contends that the contract was mutually terminated on May 5 — just one week before the city general election — over a disagreement and that Cerberus is not entitled to the bonus.

In this case, the contention stems from a political flyer distributed by the Omaha Police Officer’s Association on May 4, 2021. The OPOA, which endorsed Begley, sent out the mailer, which described Watkins as a danger to public safety with phrases including: “In Cammy Watkins’ Omaha, no one is safe.” The flyer was met with backlash, including within Begley’s campaign. Onkka and Rhoades parted ways with the campaign in the wake of the controversy, The World-Herald reported at the time.

In his counterclaim, Begley included 22 screenshots of text conversations in a group chat that he had with Rhoades and Onkka.

The screenshots detail the following:

Rhoades sent a message the morning of May 4 indicating that not speaking out against the flyers would be a big hit to Begley’s campaign.

“Women are going to be pissed and it’s likely to enrage young voters who would have stayed home,” Rhoades texted. “Now they will be out in force to defeat you.”

Begley responded, saying that he had no knowledge of the flyer, and he instructed Rhoades to prepare a response. Throughout that evening, Rhoades continued to send screenshots of people’s reactions to the mailer on social media until shortly before midnight.

At 7 a.m. the next day, Begley said he would put together a draft statement for Cerberus to review. When he did send the draft, Rhoades responded with “nope.” She instructed Begley to either post what she had already sent him (which is not included in the text messages) or sign a termination letter.

Begley responded by asking to meet in person at 1 p.m., to which Rhoades again said “nope” and told him to make a statement within 30 minutes.

“Your decision is to end our relationship or do as advised,” Onkka wrote.

Shortly before noon May 5, Begley sent a text message indicating that he would be terminating the contract effective immediately. The parties continued to text to arrange signing of termination paperwork.

The contract stipulates that either party could terminate the agreement for any reason at any time with 14 days of written notice. It also allowed Begley to terminate the agreement effective immediately for “cause,” such as if he withdrew from the race or if the consultant performed their job duties in a grossly negligent manner, according to the contract.

In its complaint, Cerberus contends Begley never notified the company that it had breached the agreement.

Lawyers for Begley say one of two things happened based on the text exchange documented in the court filing: Either the parties mutually agreed to terminate the contract on May 5, or the conduct of Cerberus satisfies the “cause” for termination. Either way, his lawyers argue that Cerberus is not entitled to the $10,000 win bonus.

Begley alleges that the complaint by Cerberus is frivolous, and he is thus requesting a reimbursement for attorney’s fees and court costs. He is also requesting $16,000 in additional consulting fees accrued from another company after the contract was terminated. Before filing his counterclaim, Begley sought to dismiss the lawsuit, but the judge in the case denied that request.

“I was incredibly disappointed with the performance of Crystal Rhoades and Ben Onkka and with their refusal to fulfill their contractual obligations to my campaign,” Begley said in a statement. “They issued an improper ultimatum and abandoned my team at a critical time, and now they seek a win bonus they never earned and compensation for work they never performed.”

Onkka did not wish to comment when reached by phone Friday. Rhoades could not be reached for comment.

David Domina, a lawyer for Cerberus, said Begley’s campaign committee — which is liable for the debt — has been attempting to escape liability for months.

“Belated claims are usually made by someone on defense, not offense,” Domina said. “We will see what a jury thinks when the case is tried.”

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