Friday, Feb. 17, 2012 | 2:01 a.m.
Many Democrats in the Assembly have not publicly reported the expenditure of thousands of dollars in campaign funds, including money for rent and living expenses during legislative sessions, the Sun has learned.
According to multiple lawmakers familiar with internal caucus discussions, the lawyer for Assembly Democrats instructed them that they do not have to report spending on expenses related to their public office — for example, rent in Carson City during the legislative session or travel to professional conferences.
It’s an apparent violation of campaign finance laws, according to Secretary of State Ross Miller, a Democrat in charge of enforcing those laws. At least three Assembly members did not disclose expenditures to support themselves during the 2012 Legislature
“I haven’t had an opportunity to fully review their side of what happened, but it appears to be a very simple matter,” Miller said. “The law is clear: Anytime you raise money into a campaign account and you spend that money, it is an expenditure that must be reported.”
Miller said his office would contact the lawmakers for clarification and “possibly to issue notices of violation.”
The three lawmakers said they were following the advice of their private attorney, Bradley Schrager, when they elected not to disclose the expenses.
Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, characterized it as an honest disagreement over how to interpret laws requiring candidates to report from whom they receive contributions and how the money is spent. She and Assemblyman David Bobzien, D-Reno, said they would work with the Secretary of State’s office to find a resolution.
Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, D-Las Vegas, who also admitted to skipping disclosure on her Carson City expenses, said she had no problem letting people examine her bank accounts and how she spends her campaign money.
She said, however, that the requirements for reporting how campaign funds are spent are becoming onerous.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to have every single penny reported just because of the level of burden it really takes on a person,” Flores said. “Maybe if I had a staffer that the state paid for to record every single one of my receipts and ensure they were being kept up full-time, and I didn’t have to leave my day job so I could spend an additional couple of hours working on that.”
State law defines campaign expenses as any money spent to campaign or to “advocate expressly for the election or defeat of a candidate.” The lawmakers said under their interpretation, that does not include expenses incurred while conducting their official duties — an acceptable way to spend campaign money, according to the same law.
While Miller agrees it’s an acceptable way to spend campaign contributions, he disagrees that the expenditures can be kept secret.
“Our caucus counsel has advised us there is some ambiguity in the law,” Bobzien said. “Recognizing the secretary of state has (a different) perspective on the law, I’ll be working with the secretary of state to resolve the matter.”
Flores was among the lawmakers who helped Miller usher his campaign finance reform bills through the Legislature last year. She said she did so because she believes the public deserves “as much information as we possibly can give them on what we do with our money.”
The state pays lawmakers who live more than 50 miles from Carson City a $736 a month housing allowance during the session. All lawmakers also receive a daily per diem of $154 during the legislative session.
Flores said many lawmakers use their campaign funds to cover expenses that exceed what the state pays legislators.
Asked to respond to Miller’s position that all of those expenses should be reported, Flores directed a reporter to the Democrats’ lawyers.
Schrager, the Las Vegas lawyer who advised the Democrats on how to report their funds, did not respond to requests for comment.
“We had a discussion with our attorney regarding the reporting requirements under Nevada campaign finance law, with each member making his or her decision on how best to file based on the specific situation, in line with legal counsel,” said Assembly Majority Leader Marcus Conklin, D-Las Vegas. “The caucus took no position on these matters as a body. There appears to be a good-faith disagreement on the interpretation of the law, and we are working on getting that resolved.”
Conklin did not reply when asked whether he had reported all of his expenses.
The decision to forgo reporting opens the lawmakers to criticism from their political opponents, as well as proponents of greater transparency into the political process.
“It flies in the face of disclosure,” state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, said. “What’s the problem disclosing how you spend your money if you’re not doing anything wrong and don’t have anything to hide? If you’re spending $3,000 a month to rent a house in Carson City, maybe your donors want to know that.”
Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, which lobbies for greater transparency on the part of public institutions and officials, said deciding against disclosure fosters distrust.
“Regardless of what kind of advice they get on what they have to do or don’t have to do, it’s in their best interest to go ahead and disclose what they’re spending the money on,” he said. “Anytime you don’t disclose, you’re telling people ‘there’s something here I don’t want you to know about’.”
But Debbie Smith said elected officials constantly ask voters to trust what they are doing is right.
“The nature of this reporting system is you have to take them at face value,” she said. “You’re going to have to trust my report and anyone else that they are accurate and in accordance with the law.”