Las Vegas Sun

April 20, 2019

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Commission has come far in 24 years

CARSON CITY -- For the first time since it was created in 1975, the Nevada Ethics Commission is commanding respect.

Its forceful decisions over the past two years stand in contrast to its previous history, which includes being bounced from office to office 13 times over the past 14 years.

At one point in the early years, commission members decided to stop meeting, declaring they had no power. The panel also was disbanded once, then revived.

But the activities of the current commission -- which now has a permanent office at 755 North Roop St. in Carson City -- have given it a higher and more no-nonsense profile.

"There needed to be change," Assembly Speaker Joe Dini, D-Yerington, said.

It was Dini who teamed with then-Speaker Keith Ashworth, who has since died, to sponsor the bill that created the Ethics Commission.

That was the era of Watergate. Ethics in government legislation was sweeping the nation.

Legislators, however, were lukewarm to the idea of a strict ethics law. The first study committee recommended a code of conduct and creation of the Ethics Commission. But, it said, the commission should be advisory to prevent misconduct rather than exist to punish public officials after misconduct occurred.

The concept of the Ethics Commission was not to conduct a "witch hunt" but "to provide public officials with guidance" for future behavior, Ashworth and Dini said at the time.

The new commission was empowered to issue advisory opinions to public officials who requested them. The opinions were kept confidential. The public could not petition the commission to investigate, and the commission could not open an inquiry on its own.

A code of ethical standards was adopted, calling for public officials not to accept any gift, employment or other benefit that "tends to improperly influence a reasoned person in his position to depart from the faithful and impartial discharge of his public duty."

Financial disclosure statements were required.

In 1976, Jerome Mack and Harley Harmon, both Las Vegas members on the Nevada Tax Commission, and Commission Director Jack Sheehan filed suit challenging the law. They objected to the disclosure form making public their private finances.

The late District Judge Paul Goldman of Las Vegas, presiding over the suit, ruled that the commission was unconstitutional. The Nevada Supreme Court agreed, saying the law was vague in dealing with income, loans and gifts disclosure. The high court declared the law creating the Ethics Commission invalid.

The Legislature went back to work and in 1977 created two ethics commissions -- one for the executive branch and the other for the Legislature. The membership was made up of current office holders. Members' authority was not increased.

From 1977 to 1979, the executive commission issued only two opinions, and the legislative body gave out four advisory opinions.

Donald Klasic, then a deputy attorney general assigned to advise the executive commission, said members felt "they were underpowered, underfunded and underworked." So they got together with their legislative counterpart and "voted themselves out."

"They felt there was no point to it," Klasic said, adding that they decided not to meet.

Ethics took a back seat until 1985 when Sen. Sue Wagner and Sen. Thomas "Spike" Wilson joined in a bill that created the framework for the current Ethics Commission.

A single Ethics Commission was re-created. "It was just time to make it real and effective," Wilson said. Yet its opinions were still advisory.

"There was a great attempt to get geographical and political balance so it would be nonpartisan," said Wilson, who left the Legislature in 1986 and then served as chairman of the commission from August 1989 to May 1996.

The commission, as it now stands, consists of six members. Three are appointed by the Legislative Commission and must include one former legislator, one former county official and one former city official. The governor appoints three members, including a retired judge, if he can find one.

There cannot be more than three members from any political party or county.

In 1989, a part-time staffer, Lee Ann Keever, became the first full-time employee of the commission, a post she still holds.

Major changes occurred in 1991 when the commission's opinions took on the force of law and the public had a chance to present grievances.

In later years, the commission was empowered to issue subpoenas to force attendance of a witness. Besides the prohibition on accepting gifts that might influence a vote, the current law says government officers shall not use their office to gain preferences for themselves, their families or their businesses.

In 1997, the commission was given the added duty of policing false statements by political candidates during election campaigns. And the criminal penalties were removed for those who were late or who did not file their financial disclosure statements.

Additionally, in an attempt to stop the "dirty politics" of years past, Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, pushed through legislation in 1997 giving the commission the power to oversee campaign statements.

High-profile cases of the early and mid-1990s included the commission finding Las Vegas Mayor Ron Lurie and Councilman Frank Hawkins guilty of ethics violations in different cases. It ruled that former UNLV basketball coach Rollie Massamino could not accept extra money from boosters for merely doing his job.

In one case, it fined Republican Bob Beers of Las Vegas $5,000 for his statements about a primary election opponent in the race for the Assembly. Beers, who was elected, is appealing through the courts.

Reflecting on what has been accomplished since 1975, Wilson said there is "a higher sensitivity among public officials" now in avoiding conflicts of interest.

"It (the Ethics Commission) has served a good purpose," he said, adding that he doesn't want to see any weakening of the state's ethics laws or the commission's powers.

An Ethics Commission, however, is not the ultimate answer to restoring public trust in government, Wilson said. The answer lies within public officials themselves and their own commitments to performing duties ethically.

Referring to the high-profile ethics violations of 1998, Wilson said: "The public distrusts government, and these cases show why."