Las Vegas Sun

June 24, 2019

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CLARK COUNTY:

What’s the deal with consultant contracts?

Agencies pay tens of thousands of dollars for lobbying and consulting expertise

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

Commissioner Steve Sisolak began in January trying to understand the numerous payments to consultants, lobbyists and public relations experts that sometimes require the approval of the Clark County Commission.

His questions were simple: Who’s getting the contracts and what are they doing for the money?

“Why does the Library District need a lobbyist?” he wondered. “How can we let someone have $4,000 for expenses, but they don’t have to give us receipts? I just want to know what’s going on.”

Getting answers turned out to be more difficult than he imagined.

The freshman commissioner requested information from various agencies, but said he was stalled and stymied. When the contracts did arrive, they came in a flood — which he interpreted as an attempt to confuse him.

“From some, we received every single little thing anyone ever did in the history of the agency,” an exasperated Sisolak said this week as he tossed packet after packet of contracts on his desk. “They knew that’s not what we wanted.”

After reviewing the agreements, Sisolak questioned why some of the same consultants and lobbyists are given contracts year after year without any request for bids. He also noted potential conflicts created by some lobbyists doing similar work for competing entities. Some lobbyists are used as experts on more than one issue, he said.

Washington, D.C., lobbyist Marcus Faust, for example, has had a Southern Nevada Water Authority contract for 17 years. The authority pays $150,000 a year to Faust, who also has contracts with the Water Reclamation District, Department of Aviation, Las Vegas Valley Water District and Regional Transportation Commission.

Sisolak said the interests of some of Faust’s other clients — Coyote Springs Investment, a massive development north of Las Vegas, water districts in Utah, and the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority — might be at odds with those of the county or other local agencies.

“You mean to tell me we can’t find other people here, or in Washington, who might be able to do the same job?” Sisolak said.

Faust could not be reached for comment.

Among the agreements Sisolak found:

• The Las Vegas-Clark County Library District had a $40,000 lobbying contract with Kummer Kaempfer Bonner Renshaw & Ferrario for the 2009 legislative session.

• The Water Authority pays $102,000 a year to Joyce Communications as a sponsor of a little-watched television show, “Eye on Washington.”

• The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada pays a $5,500 monthly retainer to The Gresh Group Inc. for state lobbying, but also pays Gresh $4,000 for expenses without requiring itemization or receipts for those expenses.

Sisolak said he hopes to force agencies to put some contracts up for competitive bidding every three to five years. He expects the county commission to discuss the matter at its next meeting, in July.

Pat Mulroy, the water authority’s general manager, called the idea misguided and said it would bring inefficiency.

“Going out for a (request for proposals) is expensive for staff and for those who respond,” she said. “When you’ve got someone who knows your operation, is part of an overall strategy or team, why would you go RFP that every five years?”

Using the Faust contract as an example, Mulroy said the $150,000-a-year cost is less than that of hiring a full-time employee and Faust’s years working with the Authority have only added to his expertise. “You can’t find a qualified lobbyist who doesn’t have a conflict ... it’s how you manage those conflicts,” she said.

But one consultant who does work for local agencies disagreed.

Terry Murphy is a former director of Clark County Administrative Services whose Strategic Solutions has a public outreach and communication contract with the Water Reclamation District worth up to $197,000 annually. She said agencies would benefit from having consultants periodically compete for work.

“Some people have contracts and they haven’t been bid for 20 years,” she said. “Now, there is tremendous value that comes from experience. But the idea of looking at whether or not there is additional talent in the community is one that always should be pursued.”

The agencies defended the expenditures as necessary and customary.

Jeanne Goodrich, the library district’s new executive director, said the library system hires a lobbyist during the legislative session to “keep its ears to the ground. It’s typical for large taxing districts such as the library to have someone monitor what bills comes up.”

RTC spokeswoman Tracy Bower said Gresh submitted receipts for expenses during previous legislative sessions but “due to the sheer volume of receipts ... we issued a flat rate.” That rate, she added, comes to about $133.33 per day, less than the $167 per-diem rate ($103 lodging; $64 meals) for Carson City set by the U.S. General Services Administration for federal-government travelers.

Gresh could not be reached for comment, but he has provided a detailed account of his activities in Carson City to the RTC’s board.

The reason agencies hire people such as Gresh, Murphy and Faust is because the county decided many years ago against hiring full-timers to do the work, said Marty Flynn, a Water Reclamation District spokesman. “In some cases, we’ve learned to do some of the tasks ... in others, it’s valuable to have someone in D.C. assisting, there’s a value in terms of return of dollars to having someone do that,” he said.

During the 2009 legislative session, Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, backed a bill that would have stopped municipalities and any state-funded entity from hiring state government lobbyists. She later watered the bill down to simply require more reporting and accountability. The bill passed the Assembly but failed in the Senate.

“My point was to verify why we’re spending this money,” she said, echoing Sisolak. She cited a study by the conservative Nevada Policy Research Institute that found local and state spending for lobbyists totaled $7.9 million in 2007.

Sisolak’s interest in the issue stems partly from his legal battle with the county.

After a judge ruled that airport height restrictions had decreased the value of 10 acres he owned on Las Vegas Boulevard and awarded him $6.5 million, the county fought the ruling for several years, lost again, and ended up paying, with interest and legal fees, about $17 million.

The attorneys who handled the case for the county were hired for the job just as the lobbyists, consultants and others are hired.

“Millions and millions of taxpayer dollars are spent on lobbying our own elected officials for consultants to do this work and I don’t know how these contracts even get awarded, if it’s cronyism or what, but it should be transparent and it should be open,” he said. “I do not have a problem with lobbyists, they are a necessary ingredient in the legislative process, but something has to change. We shouldn’t have people under contract for 17 years without a bid.”

Sisolak said he realizes his efforts to examine that process are making him unpopular in some quarters. He said he has received irate phone calls from public agencies that employ consultants and lobbyists.

His response: “If it’s not something we want to read about in the Las Vegas Sun, we shouldn’t be doing it.”

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