Senators discuss problems with State Patrol; judge's resignation questioned

Feb. 2, 2018, 3:56 a.m. ·

Sen. Burke Harr speaks on the State Patrol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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A confirmation vote morphed into a discussion of problems in the Nebraska State Patrol Friday. And questions were raised about a judge’s resignation.

The confirmation vote was on Gov. Pete Ricketts’ appointment of John Bolduc to lead the State Patrol. But legislative debate focused on broader issues. Those included Ricketts’ firing last year of former Superintendent Brad Rice, other officials’ resignations, retirements, or firing, reports of excessive use of force and interference in internal investigations, and charges of sexually invasive exams of female troopers.

Sen. Burke Harr said Ricketts hasn’t explained enough. “There are a lot of questions out there about what in the world is going on in the State Patrol. And I don’t know who the black hats are, and I don’t know who the white hats are,” Harr said.

Ricketts’ spokesman Taylor Gage said the reasons for Rice’s firing have been well-publicized. He pointed to a report last August that said Rice was fired for interfering in four internal investigations. That same report mentioned other problems, including the conduct of other Patrol officers, sexual harassment and discrimination.

Sen. Matt Hansen said he was alarmed when administration officials said they’d referred information to the FBI. “You do not call the FBI unless there is something that really, really alarms you,” Hansen said.

Sen. Tom Brewer said Bolduc, who’s been acting Superintendent since last October, is a good man being put in a bad situation, and shouldn’t be micromanaged. “He does not need influence from those above him. He needs to be his own man. He needs to make his own decisions. And that’s going to be hard. So I rise in support of him. But we’re going to keep a very cautious eye. And we’re going to trust but verify,” Brewer said.

Sen. Justin Wayne said he’s concerned that there are no minorities and only one woman in the upper ranks of the Patrol. But Wayne says Bolduc reassured him on that point. “My issues were the lack of diversity and the lack of promotion of diverse candidates. And I was adequately satisfied with his answers and his plan,” Wayne said.

Sen. Kate Bolz questioned Bolduc’s commitment to changing the culture at the Patrol. Sen. John Murante read a statement from Bolduc talking about the importance of keeping policies up to date, and improving them to meet community expectations and input from the Legislature and the courts. But Bolz said that was not enough. “I’m honestly, at this point, withholding judgment yet. Because frankly, that’s not a concrete answer,” Bolz said.

Murante acknowledged the importance of the questions senators were raising. “However, I don’t believe anyone has questioned the qualifications of the man who has been appointed to serve in this position. He is a person who, I believe, by any measure meets the standards of qualifications to serve as Colonel of the Nebraska State Patrol. He is a person who was unanimously supported by the Government Committee, and I would encourage you to do so as well,” Murante told his fellow senators.

Senators then voted 37-0 to confirm Bolduc’s appointment.

Also Friday, Sen. Ernie Chambers raised questions about the recent resignation of Nebraska Supreme Court Judge Max Kelch. Kelch, who’s been on the Supreme Court less than two years, announced Jan. 23 that he was resigning effective Feb. 15. He gave no reason, other than to say that after much deliberation, he had decided it was best for his family.

Chambers said more explanation is needed. “He’s got to say something, and the chief justice should say something. So, I’m saying it here. I’m going to write the chief justice a letter. And I’m going to say ‘Chief, you can hide the fire, but what (are) you going to do with the smoke?’” Chambers said.

Requests for comment from Chief Justice Mike Heavican were referred to Judge Kelch, who did not immediately respond to an email.