Las Vegas Sun

July 18, 2019

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Recorder thwarted free access to public documents

Clark County Recorder Fran Deane said Thursday that she purposely impeded the installation of a $4.9 million computer system that is supposed to provide free Internet access to public records such as deeds, maps, mining claims and marriage certificates.

The system is also expected to make the county recorder's office more efficient and accurate.

The delays will increase the cost of the new system by almost $3 million and in the meantime the county's existing system for recording of official documents has a 77 percent error rate, arguably the worst in the nation, according to the company that wants to finish the installation.

Deane said she threw up road blocks because she was concerned that the system, chosen by her predecessor, Judith Vandever, would not do the job and cost too much.

But the delays also could have helped her put money in her own pockets.

The red flags about the setbacks for the new system were raised Thursday as Deane continued to defend her interest in a deal that would have paid her to participate in a for-profit business of selling the public documents. Deane said the private, for-profit system in which she would have had a financial stake would not be a conflict of interest because the system would provide greater opportunities for the public retrieval of documents.

After the plan was publicized Thursday, however, Deane said she had abandoned the idea.

"It was a concept. It was an idea. It is nothing that has been done," Deane said, adding that she hoped she would have profited if the concept had moved to fruition.

Deane's elected position, which pays an annual salary of $91,138, puts her in charge of an independent office, not under the control of the Clark County Commission or county manager. The recorder plays a crucial role in documenting property ownership, marriages and births.

Deane, a Republican, had filed with the Nevada secretary of state's office for the incorporation of a new business with former Republican Lt. Gov. Lonnie Hammargren.

She said the company would have fulfilled a campaign promise to bring the recorder's 20 million documents to the public. The public would have had to pay the company for the documents, however. The fees were not yet set by the embryonic company, Deane said.

"Is there something wrong with profit-making? It is not the recorder's office," Deane said. "It is Fran Deane, the recorder."

And that's exactly why there is something wrong with the arrangement, Clark County Manager Thom Reilly said. It would be wrong for the recorder to provide records to her own company for personal profit when she could and should have been working to make those public documents more readily available to the public -- for free.

"The conflict is obvious," he said.

Clark County Assistant District Attorney Mary Miller said that if Deane's plan to create a company for her profit coincided with her blocking the installation of the contracted computer system, "it clearly would be an ethical conflict."

Miller added that her office "has no personal knowledge that she impeded" the company installing the system.

But Deane said her efforts included asking the county to suspend the contract with the company installing the public computer system, Virginia-based American Cadastre, or AmCad.

"I went to (Assistant County Manager) Rick Holmes and asked to put the contract in suspension," Deane said. "I impeded it. What they call impeding the system I call looking out for the taxpayer."

The county in May suspended the contract with the company, citing a need to amend the contract to provide for a new, delayed delivery schedule.

The company contracted to install the system this week did not warn of an ethical conflict, but warned instead that the delays in installing the system could cost taxpayers millions.

AmCad, in a sharply worded letter delivered Wednesday, criticized the recorder, elected in November, for blocking the installation of the $4.9 million public system. The company said the delays were due to problems with Clark County and the recorder's office, and so the county will have to pay.

"We are concerned about the disruptive and hostile environment created by the new recorder and we would like some assurances of her intent to cooperate and allow the installation to move forward in an unimpeded manner," AmCad Chief Executive Ronald Cornelison said in the letter hand-delivered Wednesday.

Cornelison said in the letter that the delays in completing the system installation, coupled with 1.5 million documents that will arrive at the recorder's office before the system is in place, will cost county taxpayers an additional $2.3 million over the contract.

"This increase has in no way been caused by AmCad," Cornelison said.

He also warned that delays in the system could cost the county even more because the recorder's office "is currently producing substantial and significant errors in their recording process which undermines the public confidence ... and subjects Clark County to significant liability."

Of about 974,000 documents already processed by the company for inclusion in the new computer system, 750,000 errors were discovered, with 572,000 errors "related to the most important element of a land record -- errors in the name of the granter or grantee," Cornelison said in the letter.

He called the error rate "arguably the highest error rate in the country ... made even worse by the fact that 163,335 of these errors were as a result of the name not having been entered at all."

"This disturbing situation makes Clark County susceptible to legal action and places serious question into the reliability of land record information which is, of course, the basis for the legal chain of title for property located in Clark County."

The company also demanded an immediate payment of $1.9 million for work it has completed. The county has already paid AmCad $3.1 million, Holmes said. The company says it has been paid $2.7 million.

Contacted in Virginia, Cornelison declined to comment except to say that the letter is accurate. He referred additional questions to Las Vegas lawyer John O'Reilly, who also cited the letter to the county as the company's only comment.

The county does not dispute all of the company's claims.

Holmes said there have been delays in installing the system that could be attributable to both the county and the recorder's office staffs.

He said the issue of who is to blame for the problems with the computer installation, the setting of a new timeline and the price for the work are the subject of ongoing negotiations between the company and the county.

Holmes said the letter from the company is likely the starting point of future talks. The county, he added, does not agree with all of AmCad's conclusions.

"As a starting point for negotiations, it's probably a good letter," he said. "As something we agree with, no."

Holmes said the county in May sent a letter to the AmCad announcing that the contract was suspended.

Deane said she urged the county to suspend the contract for the computer system. Her motivation had nothing to do with the idea of setting up her own, for-profit company to market public records on-line, she said.

The problem is the ultimate cost of the system, she said.

"I'm not hostile. I'm not," she said. "But I will fight for what's right. ... That $2.3 million (in additional costs caused by delays in the system installation) will turn into $3.8 million, will turn into $10 million.

"For the taxpayers, this is like owning a money pit because we are going to keep throwing money at AmCad all the time."

In one of a number of statements that diametrically oppose those of the company, county management and the Clark County District Attorney's office, Deane said the AmCad system would not be accessible to the public over the Internet.

She's wrong, Holmes said. The system was always designed to be Internet-accessible, and the county spent $85,000 buying hardware and software to do that, he said.

Holmes said that the public system ultimately should include all land-ownership documents dating back to the original settling of Las Vegas in the early 1900s. But initially, the system might only go back a decade or so, he said.

Deane said the private system she envisioned would include all the documents.

Other statements from Deane were similarly in opposition to other reports:

"We advised her of that a month ago," Miller said.

Deane also said the idea for the for-profit system would be to link with an existing, computerized service: Clark County Title Service. The company is owned by and serves title companies throughout Clark County.

Clark County Title Service already organizes and catalogues land-ownership documents, so it would be natural to provide that service to the public, and her new company could partner with the existing service, Deane said.

Executives with the company did not return phone calls Thursday.

The title service company provides records to about a dozen title companies, which provide critical services to people seeking to buy or sell properties or get mortgages. Title companies make sure there are no liens or other ownership disputes on property.

"We have our own records system," said Steve Dover, vice president of Land Title of Nevada. "It is for all the title companies I'm aware of."

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