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July 30, 2014

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Politics:

An elected official’s guide to skirting transparency laws

To: Nevada’s elected officials

From: The devil on your shoulder

Re: Political hijinks

Pssst, don’t forget you can financially benefit from Nevada’s loose laws governing the use of campaign funds, with confidence that the public won’t be the wiser.

Remember the words of former state Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, who tried and failed to pass ethics reform legislation in Nevada in 2011: “Your chances of getting caught are almost nil. If you are corrupt, it’s very easy to get away with it.”

With that said, here is your guide to making the state’s ethics and campaign laws work for you:

Take gifts without reporting them

You are supposed to report gifts you’ve received that are worth $200 or more. But Nevada law affords you a great opportunity, for instance, to travel on somebody else’s dime. Elected officials have repeatedly shown that you can neglect to report a gift by justifying it as a trip during which you learned something — anything, really — that might be useful in your elected office.

Of course, lobbyists or other gift givers have no obligation to report items they’ve given to you or things they’ve paid for on your behalf. So although you are supposed to report gifts, the state Ethics Commission and Secretary of State’s Office, which supposedly oversee these matters, don’t know what they don’t know. This is not a system of checks and balances.

If some obnoxious watchdog group or reporter asks why you did not report something, remember this rule: when in doubt, characterize it as an innocent oversight (or an ambiguous law), apologize and amend. It’ll be a small dust-up that will quickly blow over.

Push the boundaries of using campaign funds for personal use

Nevada law prohibits you from using campaign money for personal use. But the law doesn’t define “personal use,” so be creative.

One way: Charge stuff to a credit card. Rather than listing specific purchases, they can be grouped together simply as “Visa” or “MasterCard.” Or, ask a consultant to buy things on your behalf, then reimburse him as a “payment to consultant.”

If you can’t mask a payment, all you need to do is assign the expenditure to one of a dozen ambiguous expense categories (such as “event” or “travel”). The mere act of assigning an expense to a category makes the expense legitimate.

Some people with a conscience may call this practice unsavory, but remember: You work a lot for little pay, and you get beat up all the time by the unforgiving media and an angry public. So relax. Moderate use of campaign accounts for personal use generally goes undetected. The secretary of state has neither the lawful authority nor the staff to audit your reports.

So although it would be unwise to try to install something like a pool at your home using campaign donors’ money, it’s not like many people are checking up on you.

Don’t tighten these laws

If you want to keep tapping campaign funds for personal use, then whatever you do, don’t reform the law.

Don’t define “gift” in the law. Don’t define “personal use.” Avoid itemization or description of campaign expenses.

These are blunt recommendations and best not made public.

So as not to appear opposed to government transparency, avail yourself of numerous excuses. Blame the other party for stymieing transparency legislation, or generically cast blame on your elected colleagues, citing general disagreements.

Get a legal opinion justifying your expenses or gifts. Conflicting legal opinions muddy the waters and shift the debate away from what lawmakers could do to clarify the law. Remember, whatever you do, don’t clarify the law. Confusion and ambiguity are your friends.

Cheers!

— Sincerely *, Satan

as told to Andrew Doughman

*As if, I am the devil, after all

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