Friday, Nov. 3, 2006 | 7:21 a.m.
With only a few days remaining before Election Day, the two candidates running for Nevada secretary of state are locked in a bitter media ad campaign focused more on their past than on their visions for the future.
Both Republican Danny Tarkanian and Democrat Ross Miller began the campaign with name recognition attributable primarily to their well-known fathers - former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian and former Gov. Bob Miller . Each also can cite a political pedigree, with Tarkanian's mother being a member of the Las Vegas City Council.
On issues, both support tougher campaign finance and election laws.
But that's where the similarities end in what has become an acrimonious contest for a generally low-profile office responsible for managing elections, guarding against securities fraud and receiving business documents such as incorporation papers.
The two major candidates have spent considerably less time talking about the job's duties than they have on debating personal integrity. (Janine Hansen, an American Independent Party candidate from Elko, also is on the ballot.)
Ads on both sides focus on Tarkanian's contact with companies involved in telemarketing fraud.
In 1994, Tarkanian incorporated at least four business entities later found by state and federal authorities to be fronts for telemarketing schemes. He also served as resident agent, or a point of legal contact, for those companies.
While Tarkanian was never charged with any wrongdoing, Miller has tried to draw voters' attention to his opponent's connection to the businesses, which bilked millions of dollars from hundreds of victims across the country.
"I'm honest and have the integrity to lead the office," Miller said. "I think my opponent's background shows he's unfit to be secretary of state."
For his part, Tarkanian dismisses the attack, saying that Miller is simply resorting to negative campaigning by resurrecting charges that dogged Tarkanian in a 2004 Nevada Senate bid.
His argument remains the same. "I did legal work for these companies," he said. "That's all."
Tarkanian contends that Cole Cloninger, whom he knew as a ball boy during his years at UNLV, asked him to incorporate a number of nonprofit groups. Cloninger then referred some of his associates to Tarkanian's office, Tarkanian said.
Cloninger, along with several others, was later indicted and convicted for wire fraud and money laundering in connection with the businesses Tarkanian incorporated.
Tarkanian said his involvement went no further than serving as the attorney of incorporation for the businesses.
"When you're doing legal work, you don't go and check on someone's day-to-day business," he said. "You sit in your office, you write up the documents that you do as an attorney, and that's all your involvement."
By the time the first round of indictments was handed down in 1996, Tarkanian said he was no longer practicing law but coaching at Fresno State University. He said the U.S. attorney's office investigated his role in the companies but never questioned him in any of the related cases, despite his offers to cooperate.
"If they don't question you and they don't do anything else to you, you're cleared," he said.
Some legal experts support Tarkanian's view.
UNLV law professor Steve Johnson said incorporation papers are generally boilerplate documents, listing information such as a business' location and its board of directors, often with just a vague description of the firm's purpose.
Similarly, Richard Morgan, dean of UNLV's Boyd School of Law, said that while resident agents generally maintain ongoing relationships with their clients, that's not always the case. "The purpose of the resident agent is to be a place where legal business can be directed," he said.
Miller, however, cites one case in which he argues Tarkanian's involvement went beyond simple legal work.
In an affidavit released by Miller's campaign, Jan Wrobel, who spent about four years in prison for his part in a scheme that defrauded elderly victims out of more than $3 million, said Tarkanian not only incorporated his family's telemarketing businesses but made Wrobel the sole corporate officer of one of those entities - one month after his 18th birthday.
According to Wrobel, Tarkanian said the move would "provide a strong defense ... in the event that the telemarketing business ran afoul of any federal or state law" because of Wrobel's youth and inexperience.
Tarkanian denies the allegations.
When not raising questions about Tarkanian's fitness for the job, the 30-year-old Miller argues that his own background is a good match for the state post.
A prosecutor in the Clark County district attorney's office, Miller said he would push to toughen the state's campaign finance and election laws, upgrading major violations from civil misdemeanors to criminal felonies.
Under his proposal, elected officials would be required to file all contribution and expense reports electronically. Those documents then would be maintained in a searchable statewide database.
Miller's plan also would require candidates to file campaign finance reports more frequently than under the current system, which has quarterly filing deadlines. Under his plan, contributions of more than $100 made in the month before the primary and general elections would have to be reported within two days. Miller's own campaign finance reports show that he has raised $602,212 since Jan. 1.
On election reform, Miller supports extending the voter registration deadline and expanding early voting. He also supports centralizing the vote-by-mail system, currently conducted at the county level, in the secretary of state's office, and wants voters to be eligible for permanent vote-by-mail status.
"I want to make it easier to vote but harder to cheat," Miller said.
While not opposed to making voters show photo identification at the polls, Miller isn't pushing the issue like Tarkanian, who supports making such a measure state law. The key to preventing voter fraud, he said, is tougher penalties for violators.
"We need more voter participation, not less," Miller said.
He also would reform Nevada's ballot initiative process, which he argues allows out-of-state groups to pass special-interest legislation by using misleading language. Under his plan, the secretary of state's office, in conjunction with the attorney general, would draft the title and description of proposed petitions, not the initiative backers.
On other topics, Miller has suggested moving the sex offender Web registry and related documents from the Public Safety Department to the secretary of state's office. That switch, he said, would "free up resources for local law enforcement agencies to focus on the worst of the worst."
Tarkanian, 44, also contends that his experience as a lawyer and businessman would be assets in the job.
Three years after starting his own law firm here, Tarkanian in 1995 followed his father to Fresno State , where the younger Tarkanian served as an assistant coach on the men's basketball team.
Democrats have raised two issues about Tarkanian's years in Fresno.
In 1997, the school was rocked by point-shaving allegations that ultimately produced two grand jury investigations but no convictions against Fresno State players, coaches or officials.
The FBI had investigated whether two players conspired with local gamblers to shave points in several games that year. Tarkanian was questioned by a grand jury regarding his connection to one of those gamblers, Kirk Vartanian. He claimed to have met Vartanian only once, though media reports at the time quoted witnesses saying the two associated with each other.
In an interview, Tarkanian dismissed the scandal in a single sentence. "There was no point-shaving in Fresno, so I couldn't have hung out with point fixers," he said.
He also denied allegations that he turned a blind eye to academic fraud in the case of a former statistician who admitted to completing coursework for several Fresno State players. In its investigation, the NCAA concluded that Tarkanian neglected to notify school officials after the statistician told him he had completed the players' work.
Tarkanian dismissed that charge, despite the fact that the school admitted to academic fraud and imposed penalties on itself. "The academic fraud thing is a joke," he said. "I thoroughly disproved that it happened at the NCAA, and the NCAA screwed my dad." He added: "It's not true."
In 2002, Tarkanian returned to Las Vegas and founded the Tarkanian Basketball Academy, a nonprofit group that runs basketball camps and mentoring programs for area youths. He also started a real estate development company.
Then he began pondering a public career.
Two years ago he ran unsuccessfully against state Sen. Mike Schneider, D-Las Vegas, and prior to this year's race considered bids for the Las Vegas City Council and U.S. Senate.
"I've wanted to get into public service for most of my life," Tarkanian said.
If elected, Tarkanian said he would use the secretary of state post to "restore integrity" to the election process. The first step, he said, is requiring voters to show proof of citizenship at the polls. Those without a government-issued form of ID, such as a driver's license, would be provided one free of charge, he said.
Under another Tarkanian proposal, candidates would be required to file monthly contribution and expense reports during election years. In addition, those running for public office would have to file daily finance reports in the month preceding an election. Tarkanian has invested heavily in his own campaign, with one-third - $200,000 - of the $597,518 he has raised since Jan. 1 being his own money.
He, too, supports making violations of campaign finance and election laws felony offenses. "If you're going to cheat to win elections, it's much worse than going out and stealing a car," Tarkanian said.
Tarkanian has proposed establishing a designated business court system, not unlike Delaware's chancery court, to encourage more businesses to incorporate in Nevada. Last year, Nevada raised $70 million from incorporation-related fees, he said.