Firing in Defense of the Public Trust

February, 2013

Lincoln -- Governor Heineman has summarily fired his hand-picked lieutenant governor for violating the public trust. The extent to which the public trust was violated is not exactly clear. It purportedly was related to some late night phone calls to four women on a state provided cell phone, but likely it had as much to do with the fact that one of the women was involved in fronting for a scheme that could cause embarrassment to the governor and to powerful agriculture interest groups.

Whatever the reason, there are still old hands at the state capitol who, in advising the governor how to handle the matter, would ask themselves, "What Would Jim Exon Do?" if he were still governor. Leaving aside the notion that Jim Exon would ever have tolerated or exploited such a scheme in the first place, the firing event nonetheless provides an opportunity to look at Jim Exon's view of the public trust. The following comes from anecdotes I shared with Chuck Pallesen a few years ago as he was preparing his book Big Jim Exon.

In late 1978, Dick Herman of the Lincoln Journal called me at home one evening to get background for an editorial on the accomplishments of the Exon Administration's two terms in office. I listed a few, about which he was dismissive. Then I said something that shocked him: "Governor Exon ran a clean, honest government for eight years. That's a tremendous accomplishment." Dick downplayed it: "Come on, this is Nebraska, not New Jersey." I pursued, saying that the reason for it was that Jim Exon would fire his best friend if he was caught doing anything untoward, and I mentioned that an old friend and supporter at the Labor Department with whom he had been duck-hunting one weekend was out the door the next Monday when it came to light that he was caught up in trouble. The word was always afoot in state government that if you were doing anything on the shady side, Governor Exon would show no mercy.

But he would defend state employees who may have erred on the side of trying to do their jobs too well and in the process said something impolitic or potentially harmful to Governor Exon's own efforts. Don Leuenberger once said in a press conference that he had used "sleight of hand" in handling a Welfare Department matter. Jim Exon defended Don as having made a slip of the tongue. I once said a few words before the legislature's Appropriations Committee that were too pointed for the Omaha World Herald's editorial writers. Jim Exon fired back with a full op-ed in the next Sunday edition defending me.

When I was DAS director at the end of the second Exon term, one of my employees was caught using a state copy machine to run off football pool sheets. I determined that this was not incidental use, but a pattern of behavior that could be described as running a bookie business out of the state capitol. I fired the employee, who sued for reinstatement. I had to give a deposition on Christmas Day, 1978, and answer questions as to whether my actions were at the instruction of Governor Exon, who, the employee's counsel alleged, simply wanted to appear tough in that year's election campaign. Under oath I said no, I had received no such instruction and there was nothing political about it; high standards were the norm year in and year out. The dismissal stood.