Las Vegas Sun

September 18, 2014

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Sun editorial:

Campaigning on ethics reform

With toothless enforcement and lawmakers unable to pass a bill, this should be an election issue

Several state lawmakers went to Israel last year on an all-expenses-paid trip courtesy of a lobbying group, but they didn’t report the trip as a gift on their annual disclosure report.

They’re not alone.

As the Sun’s Andrew Doughman has reported, other elected officials received trips, meals and gifts that never made their lists either, despite state law that would seemingly require disclosure.

Why?

Credit this to Nevada’s weak ethics laws that often leave themselves open to interpretation. For example, the laws don’t clearly define what gifts need to be reported. The junket to Israel is a perfect example.

It was considered an educational trip, and the Legislative Counsel Bureau, which advises lawmakers on legal matters, says such trips aren’t considered gifts. Thus, they don’t need to be reported.

Elected officials in Nevada have been on plenty of excursions in the name of education over the years on someone else’s dime. They’ve been around the state, across the country, and in some cases, across the globe. A few years ago, online gaming company PokerStars offered trips to the Isle of Man and the Bahamas to educate lawmakers, and a few legislative leaders went. The public only learned about those trips when they were reported in the media.

There’s nothing wrong with elected officials learning — that’s actually a good thing and should be encouraged — but when their educational trips are paid for by lobbyists and special interest groups, they should be reported in some way. The public should know who is spending money on these types of trips because although lawmakers may learn, the groups use them to influence policy.

Last year, Secretary of State Ross Miller offered a campaign finance and ethics bill, including a provision that would have defined a gift, but the Legislature killed the legislation.

That has been the pattern for the Legislature, which has long refused to pass reform measures and has left the secretary of state’s office toothless in its efforts to police ethics. As Doughman noted, the secretary of state doesn’t even have the authority to conduct an audit to make sure officials are following the law; it has to wait for a citizen complaint to investigate.

Former state Sen. Sheila Leslie, a Reno Democrat, tried to no avail to pass an ethics reform bill in 2011. She told Doughman that with the way things stand, there’s virtually no chance that someone would get caught violating state campaign finance and ethics law.

“If you are corrupt, it’s very easy to get away with it, which casts doubt on the whole system,” she said.

Leslie is correct; the weak laws have a clouded the integrity of the system. Unfortunately, the Legislature has failed to act because despite voter outrage when ethical indiscretions are reported, the outrage seems to quickly die out.

This is an election year, and the state would be well served if this became a campaign issue. Candidates should take a stand on the issue because, as Leslie points out, the weak ethics laws have clouded the integrity of the system, and that’s not good for anybody. The Legislature should make tightening the ethics laws a priority next year, and voters should look for candidates willing do so.

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