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Nebraska senator calls for investigation into lawmaker who photographed female staff member

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A bill in the Legislature would establish a digital video archive of legislative proceedings. Sen. Tom Brewer said the goal is to help Nebraskans keep up with activity in the Legislature.

A Nebraska lawmaker is calling for an investigation into the conduct of State Sen. Mike Groene, the North Platte legislator who on Friday announced he was resigning after it emerged he had photographed a female staff member without her knowledge.

Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha on Saturday sent the request to the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office and two state law enforcement officials. In her letter, Hunt flagged potential areas of criminal wrongdoing based on media reports of the allegations. She urged the officials to investigate the matter promptly and thoroughly.

“This issue deserves your attention in the highest priority,” Hunt wrote.

On Friday Groene, a two-term lawmaker who gained a reputation for being an outspoken conservative, said he would resign from the Legislature and drop his bid for the University of Nebraska Board of Regents following reports that he took inappropriate photographs of a former staffer.

Groene told The World-Herald that he did take photos of the staffer and that it was a mistake, but he denied other details published by an online news site and said he never made sexual advances toward the staffer or “said anything to her that could be termed harassment.”

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Groene

The female staffer who was photographed, Kristina Konecko, also refuted a detail in the story published by the news site, Nebraska Sunrise News. (The World-Herald is publishing Konecko’s name at her request.)

Nebraska Sunrise News, a recently launched news website whose leadership includes Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln, was the first to report the allegations against Groene on Friday.

It reported that Konecko discovered the photos of herself on Groene’s laptop in the course of her work. The report said the photos appeared to have been taken by Groene, then sent with “email captions of a sexual nature.” It said the emails were described as “objectifying and demeaning” and that some were zoomed-in photos of “provocative body parts.”

However, Konecko said Nebraska Sunrise News’ reporting that the emails were sent to others is inaccurate. Groene also said he didn’t send the photos to other people.

Konecko told The World-Herald on Saturday that she saw that photos were sent from Groene’s phone to his personal email address on his work computer, but she did not see that the photos were sent to anyone else.

“I’m not sure where the misunderstanding came from,” she said, and she felt it very important that confusion be cleared up.

In an email to The World-Herald, Nebraska Sunrise News Publisher Fletcher Reel said the outlet stands by its reporting.

Konecko said that other details regarding the photos — that they were close-ups of provocative body parts with sexually suggestive captions — were accurate.

Groene on Friday said that he took full-length photos but did not zoom in, and that she was not in “compromising positions.”

Konecko said she originally reported the issue on Feb. 4 and followed the Legislature’s workplace harassment policy. She confirmed that she had worked for Groene at multiple points since September 2015, and said she was last brought on to work for him in September.

Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango, who chairs the Executive Board of the Legislature, on Friday confirmed that the board had received a complaint, though he didn’t specifically name Groene. Hughes said that the body’s workplace harassment policy is being followed and that an investigation is ongoing.

Konecko wanted to make it clear that nobody had told her to be quiet about the situation or barred her from speaking about it.

“I have not been advised or directed nor have I received any suggestions or recommendations from any outside sources, but because there has been a call for a formal investigation, I am not going to be answering any questions or sharing any further information,” she said. “However, I am very grateful and appreciative for the outpouring of support and encouragement that I have received from the public.”

In her call for an investigation, Hunt identified areas of potential criminal wrongdoing, based on media reports.

Unlawful intrusion, which Hunt said makes it a felony for any person to photograph or record an image of the intimate area of another person without their knowledge or consent. It also makes it illegal to share or distribute non-consensual images.

Official misconduct or misuse of state property, which Hunt said may have occurred if the pictures were taken with or saved and stored on a state computer.

Witness tampering, a violation Hunt said may have occurred if Groene or any other state senator tried to dissuade the staffer from cooperating in an investigation into the complaint.

Hunt said there could be other potential violations, writing that she had “only done a cursory review of the statutes.”

Her letter was addressed to Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, Nebraska State Patrol Superintendent Col. John A. Bolduc and Capt. Lance Rogers, who is in charge of security at the Nebraska State Capitol.

A State Patrol spokesperson confirmed that the patrol received Hunt’s letter and is in communication with the Attorney General’s Office. A spokesperson for the AG’s Office said the office will review the letter and assess its role.

Groene on Friday acknowledged that he “made a mistake” in taking the photos. Asked why he took them, he said: “Just stupid. I just did — stupid.”

He said he intended to submit his letter of resignation Monday. He cited the politics of the ordeal, rather than “the seriousness of the crime,” as his rationale for resigning. Groene is a registered Republican.

“I’m not gonna let the Democrats attack me and embarrass my family and my wife,” he said.

The Nebraska Democratic Party put out a statement condemning the senator and the state GOP on Friday before Groene announced his resignation. Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb urged Sen. Mike Hilgers, speaker of the Legislature, to answer questions regarding the incident.

Hilgers on Friday acknowledged that Groene informed him of his intent to resign — a decision that was supported by top Republican officials.

Gov. Pete Ricketts also said he spoke with Groene on Friday “and we both agreed it was best for him to resign.”

Taylor Gage, executive director of the Nebraska GOP, told The World-Herald in an email that the party supports Groene’s decision to resign.

Groene, who is barred from seeking reelection in the Legislature due to term limits, said he was dropping his candidacy for a seat on the University of Nebraska Board of Regents and leaving politics all together.

“I’m done with politics,” he said. “I’m done.”

Ricketts will be able to appoint a replacement for the remainder of Groene’s term, which ends in early January 2023. To serve beyond that date, a candidate would have to run for election this year. As of Friday, three candidates had filed for Groene’s District 42 seat: Chris Bruns, Mel McNea and Brenda K. Fourtner. Individuals who don’t currently hold elected office have until March 1 to file.

Thursday marked the 28th day of a 60-day legislative session. Lawmakers are expected to return Tuesday to the Capitol after a four-day recess.

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