A seven-week investigation into actions of former State Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte has concluded that his behavior was “boorish, brainless and bizarre,” but not illegal.
Groene, who had served six years in the Nebraska Legislature, resigned in February shortly after allegations surfaced that he had allegedly taken sexually inappropriate photographs of a female legislative aide.
A report issued Wednesday concluded that the Groene’s actions were “wholly unprofessional and inappropriate,” and while all photos of the aide pictured her fully clothed, one labeled “rear tight” appeared to have been zoomed in on her buttocks.
Groene, an often outspoken and fiery populist, has denied that photos were sexual in nature. He said that he had apologized to the aide, Kristina Konecko, for taking pictures of her without her permission and deleted the photos.
In a statement issued later Wednesday, Groene said that he did “nothing unlawful” and that an aide and legislative staff had “broken into my personal work computer” and invaded his privacy.
“I was given bad advice from the Executive Board Chairman, Speaker, and Governor to consider resigning without due process,” Groene wrote. “In retrospect, I should not have.”
“Americans have rights to their privacy, but apparently not in the Nebraska Legislature,” he wrote.
On Wednesday, State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln stood up on the floor of the Legislature to read an executive summary of an investigation undertaken by a Lincoln attorney hired by the Legislature to look into the matter.
The Nebraska Examiner later obtained a 24-page report prepared by the attorney, Tara Paulson.
Paulson interviewed 10 witnesses — legislative employees and state senators — after being hired Feb. 28 to determine whether Groene’s actions were “unlawful sexual discrimination or harassment.”
No evidence photos were shared
The attorney also reviewed 50 photographs Konecko had discovered while working on Groene’s laptop computer.
The photos, which were not included as part of the report, all pictured the aide fully clothed, according to Paulson, and were taken, with one exception, in Groene’s legislative office. They contained “cryptic” subject lines like “Blondie” and “Pageboy,” but another was labeled “legs.”
Focused on buttocks
One image, labeled “rear tight,” appeared to the aide “to have been zoomed in and focused on her buttocks,” the report stated. It was among some of the images sent from Groene’s legislative computer to his personal email account.
Paulson concluded that Groene took the photos without the knowledge or consent of his aide but found no evidence that he had shared the pictures with others.
Paulson said she found no evidence that Groene engaged in any “inappropriate touching or sexual propositions,” yet they were clearly “unprofessional predilections” that he unsuccessfully tried to keep private. His conduct, she wrote, was something that in the private sector would have resulted in some sort of reprimand, up to termination.
‘Boorish, brainless, bizarre’
“Mr. Groene’s actions … can be described as “boorish, brainless and bizarre. But they do not rise to the level of sexual harassment under applicable law or the policy,” Paulson concluded.
Had the 66-year-old senator not resigned, he would have faced a “reprimand, censure or expulsion” by his colleagues, Paulson said.
The report stated that that Groene did not respond to questions from Paulson. Grone’s attorney, J.L. Spray of Lincoln, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The report also stated that Groene had not participated in workplace harassment training provided by the Legislature.
State Patrol probe ongoing
Paulson added that the Nebraska State Patrol is conducting a parallel investigation that is looking at evidence that she was not permitted to view or evaluate.
Because of that, she said, she reserved the right to reopen her probe and “re-evaluate my conclusions.”
A spokesman for the Nebraska State Patrol said Wednesday that its investigation is ongoing.
‘Objectifying and demeaning’
Konecko had first verbally complained Feb. 4 about Groene’s actions, after discovering the photographs on his laptop computer.
She had described the photos as “objectifying and demeaning” to reporters and said some were “zoom-closeups of provocative body parts with explicit subject lines.”
Yet, according to Paulson’s report, she initially desired to keep an investigation of the matter confidential and to seek an “informal resolution” of her complaints, which is allowed under legislative workplace harassment policies.
But Konecko, according to the report, changed her mind after Groene filed as a candidate for University of Nebraska regent on Feb. 15, feeling that the senator “was not taking the informal resolution process seriously.”
That led to stories in the Nebraska Sunrise News, Nebraska Examiner and other news media.
Konecko, in a statement to the Nebraska Examiner Wednesday evening, said that filing the complaint was one of the “most difficult things I’ve ever done.”
“It was like betraying a friend,” she said. “I appreciate and am grateful to Mr. Groene hiring me all those years ago. Earning his trust was like a badge of honor for me.”
Paulson’s report said the chairman of the Legislature’s Executive Board, Sen. Dan Hughes, had responded appropriately once he learned of the complaint, immediately launching a confidential investigation.
Once the news media reported the complaints and Konecko’s name became public, Hughes asked the aide to file a formal complaint.
In her report, Paulson made several recommendations on how to improve the workplace harassment policies of the Legislature, including centralizing human relations functions for legislative workers.
Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: email@example.com. Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.