Charles W. Herbster, a Republican primary candidate for Nebraska governor, speaks during a news conference in the Nebraska State Capitol on March 15, 2022.
Charles W. Herbster, a Republican primary candidate for Nebraska governor, speaks during a news conference in the Nebraska State Capitol on March 15, 2022. Photo by Zach Wendling/NNS.

Lawmakers across the state denounced Charles W. Herbster, a leading Republican primary candidate for Nebraska governor, after the Nebraska Examiner reported April 14 allegations from eight women that Herbster had groped them.

One woman is Republican State Sen. Julie Slama of Sterling, who told the Nebraska Examiner that Herbster had reached up her skirt, without her consent, at an event in 2019. She was 22.

Slama, a Republican in the officially nonpartisan legislative body, released a statement confirming the sexual assault:

“I indirectly referenced the assault in a February 2022 floor speech in the Legislature and prayed I would never have to relive this trauma,” Slama said in the statement released April 14. “When the Nebraska Examiner contacted me about a witness account of my assault and the seven other women who shared their stories, I was not going to deny the truth.

“I am not seeking media attention or any other gain, I simply was not going to lie and say it did not occur,” Slama said. “I would request my family’s privacy be respected at this difficult time.”

Six women told the Nebraska Examiner that Herbster touched them inappropriately while greeting or saying goodbye to him or when posing for a photograph by Herbster’s side.

“The women said Herbster groped them on their buttocks, outside of their clothes, during political events or beauty pageants,” the Nebraska Examiner reported. “Each woman said she was grabbed, not inadvertently grazed, by Herbster.”

Herbster issued a statement April 14 denying the allegations.

“These libelous accusations are 100% false,” Herbster said in the statement. “For over thirty years, I’ve employed hundreds of people. I’ve respected and empowered women to run my company, my farm and now my campaign. Not once has my integrity EVER been challenged in this manner. It’s only after I’ve threatened the stranglehold the establishment has on this state do they stoop to lies this large. This story is a ridiculous, unfounded dirty political trick being carried out by Pete Ricketts and Jim Pillen.

“For nearly a year now, Governor Ricketts and Jim Pillen’s campaign team have peddled this make-up story from one news outlet to another without any success,” Herbster continued. “Now, with time running out, they’ve turned to a leftists news site to pick up and repeat their garbage. The fake-news story is based upon shadowy, unnamed sources and one person who was appointed by Governor Ricketts and her family has benefited from Governor Ricketts’ patronage for years. This isn’t bad journalism — it’s libelous fake news.”

Herbster is endorsed by former President Donald Trump to be Nebraska’s next governor. The primary is May 10.

Nebraska Examiner political reporter Aaron Sanderford released a statement after the reporting explaining the timing and background of the article. 

He said the allegations against Herbster have been an open rumor in Nebraska political circles longer than the 2022 race for governor and corroborated the information personally, publishing the article as soon as possible.

“These are women who experienced trauma and were extremely reluctant to discuss what happened to them. They are conservative women politically — some backed Charles Herbster — and they had nothing to gain from coming forward,” Sanderford said. “… Nebraska residents have a right to know about these allegations.”

The full statement is available here.

Multiple lawmakers — from fellow candidates for governor to state senators and the governor — issued statements after the reporting:

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts — “This is beyond horrible. Charles W. Herbster should beg forgiveness of the women he has preyed upon and seek treatment. Sexual assault is criminal behavior and should disqualify anyone from elected leadership. I encourage my fellow Nebraskans to respect, support and stand with these survivors, who had the courage to tell the truth about what happened to them. These brave women have Susanne’s and my full support.”

Former Nebraska Gov. Kay Orr — ”It is shocking to read the allegations against Charles Herbster, of his misconduct and degradation of women. I understand the reluctance of women to step forward for fear of retribution. However, it is my hope that men who have witnessed such behavior should feel responsible to come forward also. Knowing Senator Slama personally, I know her to be an honest and truthful person.

University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen — “All Nebraskans are called to be examples to our families, and Nebraska leaders are called to be examples to our families, communities and the state of Nebraska. Sexually assaulting women should be disqualifying for anyone seeking to serve as a leader. Suzanne and I are praying for the women targeted by Charles W. Herbster.

Pillen, a University of Nebraska regent, is seeking the Republican nomination for governor. Both Ricketts and Orr have endorsed him.

State Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha — ”I was disgusted reading the stories of my colleague, Senator Slama, and the other brave women who came forward today. As a husband and father of two young daughters, this is personal. We need to listen to and stand with the victims.”

Lindstrom is also vying for the Republican nomination for governor.

Former State Sen. Theresa Thibodeau — ”The allegations outlined against Charles Herbster are morally repugnant and in stark contrast to the principles of basic human decency. I applaud the courageous women who came forward to share their experiences and advocate for those who do not feel they have a voice. All leaders, both in the public and private sector, are obligated to promote an environment where victims of sexual assault feel they can speak out without threats of violence or intimidation. Sexual assault remains the most underreported crime for a reason. I unequivocally support Senator Julie Slama and the seven brave young women who shared their stories. I pray these women receive the justice and healing that they deserve.”

Thibodeau is also vying for the Republican nomination for governor. Herbster had selected Thibodeau as his running mate in early 2021, but she left the ticket in July. She later announced her own campaign in November.

Joint bipartisan statement from 13 women state senators — “We commend the brave women who have stepped forward to tell the truth about what they endured at the hands of Charles Herbster, including our friend and colleague, Senator Julie Slama. Sexual assault is despicable and damaging. This is not a question of politics — it is an issue of character and basic human decency. Charles Herbster’s behavior is completely unacceptable for anyone, especially someone seeking a public office of authority and trust. Herbster’s actions as outlined by the Nebraska Examiner render him unfit to serve.”

Of 49 state senators, 13 are women and all joined for this statement: Sens. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, Carol Blood of Bellevue, Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha, Jen Day of Omaha, Wendy DeBoer of Bennington, Suzanne Geist of Lincoln, Megan Hunt of Omaha, Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, Patty Pansing-Brooks of Lincoln, Rita Sanders of Bellevue, Julie Slama of Sterling, Lynne Walz of Fremont and Anna Wishart of Lincoln.

Blood is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.

Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb — “Reprehensible behavior seems to have become commonplace in the Republican Party. Nebraska needs a governor like Carol Blood who will work to better the lives of hard-working Nebraskans. Herbster is trying to use his fortune to buy the governor’s job.”

Herbster has contributed almost all of his campaign contributions — 96% — personally, self-funding $4.7 million of his $4.9 million in fundraising, according to an article from the Nebraska Examiner in February.

Zach Wendling is a senior journalism and political science double major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln focused on political, policy and governance reporting. He is the spring 2023 intern for the Nebraska Examiner and has been published in publications across the state as part of the Nebraska News Service. Wendling interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C. and worked for The Daily Nebraskan at UNL. He is one of the founding members and inaugural president of UNL's new campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.