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Governor cleared of ethics violations

Updated Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008 | 12:49 p.m.

CARSON CITY – A panel of the state Ethics Commission has cleared Gov. Jim Gibbons of allegations he used his position to get a tax break on property he purchased in Elko County.

The two-member panel said there was not “just and sufficient cause” to forward the three allegations to a full hearing of the commission.

The complaint against the governor was filed by Travis Brock, executive director of the Nevada Democratic Party, who said the governor used his position “to gain an unwarranted tax break on land he owned with his wife in Elko County.”

After the decision by the panel, Gibbons told reporters “there are a number of people who owe the governor an apology in this matter.” Asked to name who owed him an apology, Gibbons identified only Brock, accusing him of “wasting taxpayer dollars for this frivolous claim that he made.”

Brock could not be reached for comment.

The governor said, “It proves that when you start fighting for the rights of people and there are those who oppose you, they will go to any length to try undermine you or me or undermine the person.”

Patty Cafferata, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said she found no probable cause to go forward with the three complaints lodged against the governor.

The allegations made by Brock included that the governor used his position to pressure Elko County Assessor Joe Aguirre to give him the tax break and that Gibbons put undue pressure on Elko Attorney John Marvel to represent him. Marvel is a member of the Nevada Tax Commission.

The allegation also was that Marvel pressured the county assessor.

The panel, consisting of Democrat Tim Cashman of Las Vegas and Republican Eric Beyer of Reno, found there were no violations.

Cafferata said that during the investigation, her staff found that Gibbons accepted mail involving the tax issue at his state capitol office in Carson City. She said the law prohibits a state employee from using state time, equipment or other items to conduct his personal business.

Beyer said the governor spends more than 40 hours a week on the job and he’s sure that a few minutes to open the mail does not detract from his schedule. Cashman called the time receiving and opening the mail only a small item.

Last year 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, under the tax break received, is paying $40 a year in taxes on the property that is used for agricultural purposes, not the $5,000 the property would have been assessed. He is leasing back the 40 acres to Whitehead to graze his cattle.

Assessor Aguirre said he did not approve the application but let it take effect without his signature. During the investigation, Aguirre said Gibbons never put any pressure on him. But he said that Marvel did.

The ethics panel also cleared Marvel.

Cashman said the governor did not use undue pressure on Marvel. Gibbons said he didn’t know Marvel was on the commission when he hired him to apply for the tax reduction.

Cashman noted that Gibbons did not appoint Marvel to the Tax Commission. And if there was a denial by the assessor, the appeal would have been filed with the state Board of Equalization, not the Tax Commission.

In his complaint to the ethics commission, Brock suggested a civil penalty of $10,000 or $5,000 for each of the two alleged violations. And he said the governor should pay twice the amount of the tax benefit he received.

Gibbons called the claims by Brock “outrageous” and said they were based on newspaper stories, not on facts.

Cy Ryan may be reached at (775) 687 5032 or [email protected].

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