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Anti-pipeline activists, county commissioner differ on whether $49,000 payment was a bribe

Anti-pipeline activists, county commissioner differ on whether $49,000 payment was a bribe

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LINCOLN — The leading group opposing the Keystone XL pipeline says that pipeline developer TC Energy has offered what the group calls a $49,000 bribe to a Holt County Board member for his cooperation in getting the controversial project built.

The board member, William Tielke of Atkinson, said the money, which he disclosed in a state conflict of interest filing in July, was “not a bribe to me.”

And a spokeswoman for TC Energy, formerly TransCanada, said that similar payments have been offered or are in the process of being offered to all landowners, like Tielke, who have signed right-of-way agreements for the Keystone XL pipeline in Nebraska, South Dakota and Montana.

“The construction completion bonus is neither unique to Mr. Tielke nor is it unusual,” said spokeswoman Robynn Tysver, who added that 90% of landowners in Montana and South Dakota and 75% of landowners in Nebraska have already signed it.

She said the only specific request in getting the bonus is that landowners be “open to negotiating with us” over additional workspace during construction.

In July, Tielke filed a conflict of interest statement with the Nebraska Political Accountability and Disclosure Commission stating that he had sold an easement to TC Energy so the pipeline could cross his land in Holt County. Then, he added, “But they do say they will pay me around $49,000 after the project is completed if I work well with them.”

Jane Kleeb, of anti-pipeline group Bold Nebraska, said that the conflict of interest statement clearly outlined a “bribe,” and that it was filed only after Bold Nebraska members in Holt County raised concerns.

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TC Energy “can call them ‘business’ deals, but these are government officials making decisions and voting on a project from a foreign-owned corporation in exchange for treating them well. They get paid. That is just wrong,” Kleeb said.

The bribery allegation is the latest development in the controversial history of the Keystone XL project, a 36-inch pipeline proposed more than a decade ago to carry heavy crude oil from Canada’s tar sands region to oil refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. The latest route of the pipeline crosses Holt County, including land owned by Tielke, a longtime member of the County Board and its chairman.

Tielke in an interview said he had inquired with the state accountability office about whether to file a conflict of interest statement after learning about a “cooperation bonus” being offered to landowners. He said he learned about it when TC Energy workers visited his property to check for any special issues that would need to be addressed during construction, such as electrical lines crossing the planned pipeline route.

Tielke said he was told that the bonus would be figured per mile of pipeline, which in his case works out to about $49,000.

The bonus, he was told, was for “working well” with the project and would be paid at the end of construction.

Tielke said he didn’t know exactly what the company meant by “working well,” but he said no one had mentioned anything about his role on the County Board.

“It’s not a bribe to me,” he said.

Kleeb called the board member’s explanation “totally laughable,” and said Tielke’s own words, in the conflict of interest filing, prove that. The bonus, she said, is another example of TC Energy “greasing the wheels” so they can build the pipeline.

Tysver, the TC Energy spokeswoman, said that the company has been working for 10 years with some of the landowners, and that the bonus is intended to “fairly compensate landowners for inconveniences we may cause during construction.”

Frank Daley, the executive director of the State Political Accountability and Disclosure Commission, said in a July 22 letter to Tielke that the $49,000 payment offered by TC Energy would constitute a conflict of interest that would prevent him from “participating, discussing or voting” on any future matters that would “either facilitate the construction of the pipeline or impede the construction.” That, Daley said, is because he would personally get financial benefits if the pipeline were built.

The Holt County Board, in 2010, adopted new zoning regulations for oil pipelines, and in 2013, the board voted 7-0 to oppose the pipeline, citing potential threats to groundwater. Tielke joined in the 7-0 vote against the Keystone XL, but called it largely a symbolic vote.

If construction begins on the pipeline, the County Board would be confronted with new issues, including usage of county roads by construction vehicles and payment for any damages, as well as easements across county right of way.

The Keystone XL is currently being held up by three pending lawsuits. Two are in federal court in Montana concerning the adequacy of federal environmental studies. The other is in Nebraska over whether the State Public Service Commission had authority to approve an alternate route across the state. The Nebraska lawsuit was argued before the State Supreme Court in November, but still awaits a ruling.