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Court: Ethics Commission has no authority in Hardy case

Updated Thursday, May 21, 2009 | 6:48 p.m.

CARSON CITY – The Nevada Supreme Court has ruled that the state Ethics Commission has no authority to process an ethics complaint against Sen. Warren Hardy because of the separations of power.

The court, in a unanimous decision written by Chief Justice James Hardesty, said the power to discipline a legislator “is a function constitutionally committed to the Legislature, and it cannot be delegated to another branch of government.”

Hardy, R-Las Vegas, had been advised by lawyers for the Legislature to abstain from voting on the $780 million tax package this session because he had the ethics case pending in the Supreme Court. But this apparently lifts that restriction, freeing him to vote.

A complaint was filed against Hardy with the ethics commission that he violated the law by failing to disclose an alleged conflict of interest and failing to abstain from voting on the bill in the 2007 Legislature.

Hardy got a ruling from the district court in Carson City that the ethics commission was prohibited from pursuing a case against a state legislator.

Hardesty, in the eight-page opinion said, “We conclude that the (ethics) Commission is barred from conducting any further proceedings against Senator Hardy based on the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers.”

“I feel exonerated,” said Hardy. He said he has been advised by legal counsel of the Legislature that he may vote on the $780 million tax package.

But during this session, he has repeatedly disclosed he may have a conflict because of his job as president of the Associated Builders and Contractors.

The court had granted Hardy’s motion on Feb. 9 to give speedy consideration to his case because of the legislative session. And the court heard oral arguments on April 9.

This was the second case in two days of a senator being cleared to vote on the tax increase legislation.

Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio was advised Wednesday by the legal counsel for the Legislature that he should abstain because a member of his Reno law firm had testified about the tax package.

But the Senate, in a quick move, passed a resolution changing the rules on abstaining from voting. And it permitted Raggio, who supports the tax package, to cast his ballot.

The Democrats hold a 12-9 majority in the Senate but need 14 votes to get approval of the tax increase. So Raggio's and Hardy's votes are crucial.

Raggio's law partner Jim Wadhams testified last week before a legislative tax committee that taxes should be broad based and an industry should not be singled out. He said zeroing in a specific industry has not worked in the past.

Raggio said he did not believe he had a conflict of interest. But he was advised to abstain. But then the rule change was approved Wednesday night to open the door for him to cast his ballot.

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