Legislature moves to restore oversight; idea to help veterans charged with crimes heard

Feb. 23, 2024, 5 p.m. ·

Former Defense Secretary and U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel testifies Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Former Defense Secretary and U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel testifies Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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The Nebraska Legislature took a step Friday toward re-establishing its powers to oversee state agencies. And senators held a public hearing on a proposed program to help troubled veterans avoid criminal convictions.

More than 50 years ago, the Legislature created the Office of Public Counsel, or ombudsman, to investigate and try to resolve citizen complaints about state government. In the last decade, it created inspector generals in that office for both the prison and child welfare systems following scandals. Last August, Attorney General Mike Hilgers issued an opinion that those offices violated the separation of powers. Gov. Jim Pillen’s administration then stopped allowing inspectors unfettered access to facilities and records in the affected departments.

Friday, lawmakers debated a resolution to partially restore that access while a special legislative committee studies future oversight. Speaker John Arch said he’s headed two investigations into failures of the Department of Health and Human Services.

“Both of those were in reaction to events that we were not aware of, and then we responded to. We were behind the curve when we started those special committees. Why didn't we know? Why didn't we know? Because our system is not proactive. We need to take a step back and we need to develop a proactive system of oversight,” Arch said.

Sen. Justin Wayne questioned if the resolution was needed, especially for prison oversight. Wayne quoted the state constitution.

“Article four, section 19: ‘(The) general management control and government of all state charitable, mental, reformatory and penal institutions shall be vested as determined by the Legislature.’ What that means is if we choose to have an inspector general in the Department of Corrections, it can be done,” Wayne said.

Sen. Terrell McKinney criticized his fellow senators for not standing up to the Pillen administration for keeping inspectors out of the prisons.

“We're willing to give up that authority to the executive branch because I guess they could do what they want. And nobody's here to stop them. We're just going to roll over,” McKinney said.

Arch said the Legislature’s governing Executive Board could have sued the Pillen administration, but chose not to.

“That does not mean ‘rolling over’ to the administration. I really react to that statement. That is not what that means. We could have litigated and we would be in litigation today. Rather, we have an agreement that puts the ombudsman back to work, puts the IG back to work, and we do our job,” he said.

Sen. Danielle Conrad supported the resolution, but noted that an agreement with the administration restoring some oversight functions does not have the force of law. Conrad also said senators should divorce their views on the subject from who currently holds which office.

“We can and we should have serious conversations about critical legal issues, including legislative oversight of our state's most troubled, big bureaucracies that have fleeced the taxpayers and harmed vulnerable Nebraskans, without having to think about whether or not we like Attorney General Hilgers, whether or not we like Governor Pillen. It's not about that,” Conrad said.

Senators voted 38-1 for the resolution, with only McKinney opposed. The special committee is to report its recommendations by December 15.

Also Friday, the Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on a proposal to help troubled veterans avoid criminal convictions. Among those supporting the proposal was former Defense Secretary and Nebraska U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel.

“We all love veterans. We all acknowledge the service of veterans and we say nice things about veterans. But when some veterans get in trouble and they commit a crime, courts in this country, judges in this country, prosecutors in this country have very few options,” Hagel said.

The proposal Hagel supports would create a program where a veteran charged with a crime could get treatment and be put on probation. Veterans would be presumed eligible if there is reason to believe something they experienced during their service contributed to the offense. The program would be in addition to existing veterans’ problem-solving courts, where defendants must first enter a plea, but charges can be dismissed if they complete the program.

Supporting the proposal, Jim Seward of the Kansas National Guard said only 14 percent of counties in the U.S. have veterans’ courts. In Nebraska, such courts serve only Douglas, Sarpy, Lancaster, Hall, Adams, and Buffalo counties.

Sen. Carolyn Bosn said the way the proposal was written, even veterans charged with the serious crimes like murder or rape could be eligible. But Brock Hunter, a former Army scout and now a defense attorney, said that could be changed.

“None of what we are trying to do… is in any way trying to increase the danger to public safety. Quite the opposite. We just want to take an open eye that very often military service-related trauma, when undiagnosed and untreated, drives criminal conduct; that if we want to avoid that veteran continuing to recidivate for the rest of their life, pragmatically, it makes sense to get them the help that they need,” Hunter said.

Bosn also pointed out that while prosecutors determine who’s eligible for veterans’ courts, the proposal would give that job to judges. When Dan Zieg opposed the bill for the Nebraska County Attorneys Association, Sen. Wayne asked about that.

“Is the main objection that prosecutors aren't the gatekeeper to the people who get in?” Wayne asked.

“I think if you were to kind of pare it down, yeah that'd be it, is that we need to serve as the gatekeeper for who's going to come into a treatment court or something like that,” Zieg said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.