Ricketts rejects calls for resignation of State Auditor Charlie Janssen
LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts rejected calls for the resignation of the state auditor on Monday, saying that if he had a direct employee who was taking three-hour lunches at a sports bar during work hours, as State Auditor Charlie Janssen did, he would “counsel them” before taking more serious steps.
“That’s what progressive discipline is all about,” said Ricketts, in his first extensive comments on The World-Herald’s investigation of the auditor’s work habits.
“We would have asked them to make changes, similar to what Charlie has promised to make, and would have gone from there,” the governor said.
“What really matters is whether the person is going to change their behavior,” added Ricketts, who did not rule out calling for Janssen’s resignation if changes did not occur.
The comments came after the head of the Nebraska Democratic Party charged that the governor was “doing nothing” in the wake of the investigation and was instead providing “political cover” for a fellow Republican rather than demanding his resignation.
“If anyone else in the state had said ‘I’ll show up at 10 a.m., stay at the office a couple of hours, then spend three hours at lunch and then go home,’ they’d be fired immediately, and that needs to happen here as well,” Jane Kleeb, the state Democratic chair, said at a press conference Monday.
Ricketts, who has campaigned on running state government like a business, rejected Kleeb’s claim that he was covering for Janssen.
Janssen, who is seeking re-election to the $85,000-a-year post, has been under fire since Thursday evening, when The World-Herald published a story documenting the auditor’s short working hours at his State Capitol office, often followed by long lunches, which sometimes included drinking beer, at a sports bar.
Janssen was at the sports bar on 10 of the 20 most recent days documented by the newspaper. On those days, he most often spent more time at the bar than at his office.
After the story was published, Janssen, a 47-year-old former state senator, issued a statement acknowledging the accuracy of The World-Herald report and apologizing to Nebraskans. He pledged to make changes in his personal and professional life, and to become “an even better state auditor moving forward.”
After initially calling for Janssen to remove his name from the ballot, Kleeb on Saturday ramped up her rhetoric, saying the auditor should resign and repay taxpayers for the time he spent at the bar. She also called on Ricketts, the state’s top Republican, to “drain the swamp” by demanding that Janssen resign.
Ricketts did not respond to phone calls, emails and text messages seeking a response to that on Saturday. But on Monday, after signing a proclamation for the American Legion, he took reporters’ questions.
The governor said he had not been personally aware of Janssen’s work habits, but had spoken to him following the revelations.
“He took responsibility, he acknowledged what he did was wrong and promised to make changes,” Ricketts said.
The governor said those changes need to include “being to work first thing in the morning, no more three-hour lunches, making sure he’s here in the office or wherever he needs to be.”
“It’s really incumbent on him now to really make those changes,” Ricketts said. “He’s got about seven weeks to prove it to the people of Nebraska.”
That is a reference to Election Day. Janssen is opposed for re-election by Jane Skinner, a part-time library specialist from Omaha making her first run for political office.
On Monday, Skinner joined Kleeb at the press conference, saying that while the Auditor’s Office has “a great staff that does great work,” she was unimpressed with the role Janssen has played as a well-paid elected official.
Kleeb pointed out that Janssen’s behavior was not “a one-time offense” and that as the state auditor, he’s supposed to root out “waste, fraud and abuse.” Instead, she said, he’s become the “poster child” for wasting taxpayer funds and abusing his position.
Janssen was not at his State Capitol office on Monday. His office said he was attending a funeral.
Meanwhile, the Nebraska Republican Party — which did not comment last week on the Janssen affair — leveled its own accusations on Monday, alleging in a press release that the Democratic candidate for governor, State Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, had drunk alcohol during working days at the State Legislature.
Krist, as well as Kleeb, condemned the attack. Krist called it “dirty Washington-style gutter political tactics” and Kleeb labeled it an attempt to divert attention from the Janssen story.
When asked Monday about Janssen’s work ethics, the state GOP executive director, Kenny Zoeller said he was glad that the state auditor had apologized and pledged to change.
When asked if Janssen should resign, Zoeller said the voters should be allowed to decide whether Janssen keeps his job.