Questions raised over Nebraska lawmaker’s ties to non-profit poised to receive $40 million grant

A Nebraska state senator representing parts of Omaha is facing scrutiny over his ties to a newly established nonprofit poised to be awarded a substantial grant.

At issue is Democratic Sen. Justin Wayne’s work filing paperwork and establishing the Sankofa Innovation District, formerly the nonprofit Sankofa Development Corporation, months ago that is on the verge of receiving $40 million from the legislature — the most extensive grant awarded this cycle.

As the Omaha-World reports, the nonprofit is “led in part by Wayne’s friend and fraternity brother,” which has raised eyebrows over the bill that “deliver an unprecedented infusion of funds to North Omaha and other low-income neighborhoods.”

According to Wayne, he no longer has any involvement in the nonprofit and only provided his services filing the paperwork “pro bono.”

Despite that, one former lawmaker said he should have been more transparent about his involvement when advocating for the bill.

“That should not take away from the fact that they may be best served to execute the plan, as long as it’s fully disclosed and everybody understood going in that was the relationship that you’re having to deal with,” John Stinner, who chaired the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee when Legislative Bill 1024 passed, explained.

However, according to the report, there are legitimate questions about the arrangement.

“Wayne said he had the original idea for a concept using the word Sankofa but was busy. He told friend and fraternity brother Victor Beanum about it. Beanum loved the name and asked Wayne to incorporate it for him, he said,” the report states. “When it became clear that Beanum and others involved with Sankofa were interested in grant funding, Wayne said he told them he wanted nothing to do with it and they should start their own, new company.”

While the two have protested any conflict of interest, the Omaha-World reports, “Amended documents for Sankofa Economic Development Corporation were filed Sept. 29, 2022, without Wayne’s name associated. On Oct. 21, the same four people who signed that documentation signed articles of incorporation for ‘Sankofa Innovation District.'”

The report adds, “State paperwork for both entities lists the same primary function: ‘to restore value to the community by directly and indirectly acquiring, developing, and selling vacant and abandoned properties in cooperation with stakeholders and residents for the benefit of the community.'”

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“Sankofa was recommended to receive far more funding than any other proposal in North Omaha. The next-biggest North Omaha recommendation was a $20 million project submitted by the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, one of two projects from that organization that Olsson recommended funding. In South Omaha, a Southside Redevelopment Corporation project was recommended for $39 million. Wayne said he has been no more involved with the current Sankofa organization than he has with other North Omaha and South Omaha groups interested in funding,” the report continues before adding, “In an interview this week, Wayne said he would declare a conflict of interest and not vote on a bill if it’s specific to LB 1024. Later that day, he reversed course and said he wouldn’t.”

You can read more here.