Thursday, Aug. 14, 2008 | 2:42 p.m.
CARSON CITY – Gov. Jim Gibbons and a top Democratic official will battle it out on Sept. 11 whether the governor violated the law by using the pressure of his office to gain a tax benefit on his 40 acres of pasture land in Elko County.
Patty Cafferata, executive director of the state Ethics Commission, says she set the hearing before a two-member panel composed of Commissioners Mark Hutchison of Las Vegas and Paul Lamboley of Reno.
The panel will hear evidence for an hour and then decide whether there is sufficient cause to send it to the full commission to consider. The panel could also decide there is not enough evidence and dismiss the complaint.
By law, Cafferata said there must be a Republican (Hutchison) and a Democrat (Lamboley) on the panel. And the law requires these hearings be closed, unless the target of the complaint agrees it should be open. In this case, Cafferata said the governor has waived the privilege and agreed that all records and the hearing should be open.
An investigator for the commission has started interviewing the witnesses and a report will be presented to the panel that will be video conferenced between Las Vegas and Carson City.
The complaint against Gibbons was filed by Travis Brock, executive director of the Nevada Democratic Party, alleging the governor used his position “to gain an unwarranted tax break on land he owns with his wife in Elko County…”
Brock suggests a civil penalty of $10,000 or $5,000 for each of the two alleged violations. And the governor should pay twice the amount of the tax benefit he received.
Gibbons says the complaint is “nothing more than a partisan attack on my reputation” and the allegations are “baseless.”
The Brock complaint also says the governor misused his position by hiring Elko lawyer John Marvel, an appointee on the state Tax Commission, to get the tax benefit from the Elko County Assessor Joe Aguirre.
The governor, in his answer to the complaint, said he hired Marvel because he “needed an experienced land lawyer in Elko County” and not because of his membership on the Tax Commission.
Under the agricultural tax break secured by Gibbons, he is paying $40 a year, instead of the $5,000 he would have been hit with.
The governor purchased 40 acres for $575,000 in Lamoille owned by former Washoe District Judge Jerry Carr Whitehead who was receiving the tax break on the larger parcel he owned.
Gibbons then met with County Assessor Aguirre to determine how to continue the tax deferment. The Brock complaint says Gibbons “pressured and prevailed upon a longtime public servant (Aguirre) who sought only to apply the laws of this state fairly and accurately”
The governor, in his reply, said he simply asked what he must do to continue the tax break. “I certainly did not make any threats nor did I even make any innuendos concerning any repercussions concerning his decision.” He said there were no arguments and he never contacted Aguirre after that.
Gibbons said the evidence presented by Brock consisted of four newspaper articles, a video of a political television show and a radio station interview. That does not constitute evidence, said the governor.
Brock said he was aware that more is needed than then media report and statements by Aguirre back up the allegations. Aguirre said he didn’t like the deal and let the tax deferment become effective without his signature.
To gain the tax deferment, the Gibbons property would have had to generate at least $5,000 in gross income from grazing or other agricultural activity. Brock questions whether the 40 acres could generate that income.
But Gibbons produced two checks worth $5,700 paid by Whitehead allegedly for the grazing of cattle.
Brock suggested it would be impossible to realize that type of money on the 40-acre parcel. And he said the governor would have to re-qualify every year for the tax deferment.
Cy Ryan may be reached at (775) 687 5032 or [email protected]