Las Vegas Sun

October 10, 2015

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A loss of ethical direction


Sam Morris

The Nevada State Legislature building in Carson City.

The recent actions of several state lawmakers clearly defy ethical explanation. Sun reporter Anjeanette Damon recently reported on several disturbing developments as a group of seven lawmakers tried keep secret how they were spending some of the money they raised from donors. That is until it was brought to light by Damon, after which each of the legislators complied with the law and reported their spending.

Just what did the legislators hide from the public? The use of campaign money for personal purposes. There exists a troubling trend in which campaign money is mutating into a secondary income stream out of public view and scrutiny. As Damon reported, some of the donations given to the lawmakers went toward rent, groceries and electronics.

Campaign donations from lobbyists, corporations and the occasional citizen are supposed to go toward paying expenses related to campaigns, and the law requires that the source and size of the donations, along with how the money is spent, be publicly reported.

What is more disturbing than the failure to initially report the information as required is that the lawmakers — and their lawyer — tried to justify their actions by claiming there was an “honest disagreement” over the law. That simply cannot be true.

An honest disagreement presupposes that a dialogue was already taking place. This was a purposeful act of withholding mandated public information that was uncovered by a journalist — not reported as part of a broader discussion between legislators and the executive branch, or much less the public.

To add insult, one politician publicly stated that the legal requirement to report campaign donations and how they are spent was too bothersome. The lawmaker, a graduate of the Boyd School of Law, said it would be easier to comply with the law if the taxpayers paid for a state employee to perform the task on her behalf. Except, of course, for expenses she deems personal.

A public office is for the public benefit and not for the officeholder’s private advantage. Furthermore, transparency is fundamental to an effective democracy, as secrecy is to a failed state.

It is hard to gauge what are the most egregious ethical lapses in this scandal. Is it the lengths to which elected officials went to not report, essentially hiding campaign expenditures, in direct contravention to the law? Their utter lack of substantive argument for their actions? Perhaps the fact that one lawmaker, a lawyer is willing to follow the plain language legal requirement of the law, as long as it’s made easier or the public hires someone for her. Or maybe it’s that one of the lawmakers involved is expected to be the next speaker of the Assembly. Or is it that the secretary of state stated that because amended reports have now been filed, no legal action against the lawmakers can be taken?

A clear lack of oversight and self-regulation allowed this to happen. Nevada has possibly the least restrictive reporting requirements in the nation and its ethics laws are minimal, and yet seven lawmakers still couldn’t find their way. It’s a shame that it came to this, and it took the press to shine a light on their unethical secretive actions and intentions.

Martin Dean Dupalo is the president of the Nevada Center for Public Ethics.

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