Criminal case against former History Nebraska director becomes a battle of state statutes

Attorney for Trevor Jones contends that law gave total discretion over use of foundation funds, while prosecutor cites failure to deposit money with the state treasury, as required

By: - October 13, 2023 5:00 am
Trevor Jones

Former History Nebraska Director Trevor Jones, left, arrives Thursday for his preliminary hearing over a felony left charge with the lawyer, John Ball of Lincoln. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — The attorney for former History Nebraska Director Trevor Jones hammered away Thursday at the felony criminal charge his client faces, saying that state statutes allowed him to spend donated “discretionary funds” any way he wished.

“Who is the victim here? Where is the loss?” said Lincoln attorney John Ball, his voice rising, during a preliminary court hearing.

But a state auditor, as well as a state prosecutor, pointed out there’s another state statute in play in the case against Jones — one that requires that any donation to a state agency must be deposited with the state treasurer within three business days.

Instead, the $270,000 donation was funneled to a new, private foundation that Jones helped set up, and helped pay the legal, organizational costs of the History Nebraska Foundation so it could replace the older, State Historical Society Foundation.

‘Money intended for the state’

“It was money intended for the State of Nebraska,” Deputy State Auditor Craig Kubicek testified, and not for a private foundation.

“If there had been a request for $269,000 to establish a new foundation, we wouldn’t be sitting here today,” Kubicek said.

Jones, 51, is charged with theft by deception of over $5,000 in connection with the redirection of $270,000 from a discretionary fund kept by the Nebraska State Historical Society Foundation. The felony charge carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

Trevor Jones
Trevor Jones served as director and CEO of History Nebraska from 2016 to 2022, resigning just prior to an audit criticizing his re-direction of a foundation donation. (Courtesy of History Nebraska)

The funds were requested by Jones in June 2020, as COVID-19 closures began to inspire financial worries at History Nebraska.

But Kubicek testified Thursday his audit found no evidence that the funds were ever used to cover COVID-19 losses, as intended, or deposited with the state, as required.

The testimony came during a nearly two-hour preliminary hearing. Prosecutors must show at such a hearing that there is “probable cause” to believe a crime has been committed for the case to proceed to a trial.

Lancaster County Judge Timothy Phillips asked that attorneys submit final, written arguments within two weeks in the battle of state statutes. He set a court session for Nov. 17 to announce his decision.

Thursday was Jones’ first appearance in court since he was charged in June with felony theft.

First reported by the Examiner

The case, first reported by the Examiner, began with a critical state audit in August 2022, which questioned whether the fund shift was a violation of state law.

After the Lancaster County Attorney ‘s Office declined to file charges, the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office did in June. That office is prosecuting the case.

Corey O’Brien, a chief prosecutor with the AG’s office, called Kubicek and Nebraska State Patrol Investigator Amanda DeFreece, to explain what they found after a complaint about the handling of the funds was received on the auditor’s fraud, waste and abuse hotline.

Kubicek said that instead of depositing the foundation funds into the State Treasury, Jones signed over checks of $269,926 and $325 to a bank account that he had established for the new foundation.

The second check, Kubicek said, had been stamped to go to the state treasury, but the stamp had been crossed out and Jones endorsed it to the new foundation.

Ball, Jones’ attorney, kept grilling Kubicek over a state statute that the defense attorney maintained gave History Nebraska total discretion over how it used the “discretionary fund” from the older foundation.

‘They can do anything they want’

“They can do anything they want with the funds,” Ball said, suggesting  that no crime had been committed in transferring the $270,000 from one private foundation to the other.

“I’m not an attorney, but I’d disagree with that,” Kubicek said.

The investigations by the auditor and State Patrol came amid friction between Jones and the established State Historical Society Foundation. The spat was over how the director was handling donations received by the foundation, which was established in 1942.

The turmoil prompted Jones to lead the creation of a competing foundation in 2019, the History Nebraska Foundation, and later to inform the more established, better funded Nebraska State Historical Society Foundation that it was being replaced.

“That is the crux of the whole thing,” shouted Ball, when that history was related Thursday in court.

Only two checks not deposited with treasury

Kubicek testified that History Nebraska had received 49 donations from the State Historical Society Foundation in 2020, but only two — those redirected by Jones — were not deposited with the State Treasury as required.

The deputy auditor also testified that funds transferred to the History Nebraska Foundation were used primarily to cover legal fees in setting up the new foundation. Jones, who was a board member of the new foundation, received a couple reimbursements for expenses, Kubicek said.

Last month, in a settlement bartered by the Attorney General’s Office, the new History Nebraska Foundation agreed to repay the $270,000 to the state agency.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.