Saturday, Nov. 21, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Over the past several years, a Clark County employee’s architectural firm has gotten hundreds of thousands of dollars in county architectural contracts in violation of state law.
County Commissioner Steve Sisolak discovered the problem relatively easily and is questioning how and why county staff hadn’t. As a result, the county is investigating and planning changes to try to prevent similar violations in the future.
The case that brought it all to light involves a Las Vegas architect, Marc Lemoine, whose wife is a Clark County civil engineer. She works on traffic plans, some involving development or construction. Marc Lemoine Architecture has won seven county contracts worth $316,571 since 2001.
The firm would have won another worth almost $200,000 on Tuesday if Sisolak hadn’t noticed that the firm names Denise Lemoine as a “member.” Marc Lemoine said his wife was listed as a member of his limited liability company since before she started working for the county.
Denise Lemoine has been a county employee since late December 1999. She works in the Development Services Department and has an annual salary of $110,157.
After Sisolak pointed out his discovery during a County Commission meeting Tuesday, Mary Ann Miller, the county lawyer who advises commissioners on legal matters, said awarding a contract to Lemoine Architecture would be a violation of state law. Nevada statutes, she said, “prohibit a public employee from entering into an agreement with a government ... she works with unless it is competitively bid.”
Willful violations of the ethics in government law are punishable by a fine of up to $5,000.
Lemoine’s architectural jobs with the county were not competitively bid. The county has Lemoine and numerous other architectural firms listed in a “rotation,” said Randy Tarr, director of the county’s real property management department. That department handles design and construction of county buildings and evaluates the architects who are put on the rotation list.
Tarr said that when a project requires architectural services, county staff simply give the work to the next firm in line on the list. Architects are listed in categories depending upon the size of contracts they will take. Lemoine was in the “small” category with 18 other firms that handle contracts for less than $2 million. In the “medium” category, 37 firms are listed; and the “large” category lists 17.
Tarr said Denise Lemoine never attempted to give her husband’s firm an unfair advantage. The rotation system inherently avoids that and, he added, “we didn’t even know who Denise was” until Sisolak mentioned her.
Also, Denise Lemoine had noted her husband’s firm in a “notice of additional employment,” which is required for employees who work outside county government and is filed with her department.
Her husband, meanwhile, listed Denise Lemoine as a member, so the couple don’t appear to have been trying to hide her role with the firm.
The county, however, never made the connection because Lemoine works for development services, but the contract went through the county’s purchasing and contracts division, Miller said.
All of which brings up a question Sisolak asked Friday: What good does it do to disclose if no one pays attention? “I’ve been told nobody checks,” he added.
Companies that do business with the county disclose the names of people holding more than a 5 percent ownership or financial interest in the business. That’s how Denise Lemoine’s name is listed.
But there’s no box or place on the form to note if a corporate officer or member has a family connection to county government. That has to change, Sisolak said.
“We have to do something on the employee side and on the bidder side,” he said. “Somewhere on that form, or when you’re put on the list, there should be a question, ‘Do you have a relationship with a county employee?’ ”
Sisolak, a former member of the Nevada Board of Regents, said conflicts of interest born of family relationships were “a huge problem” in the Nevada university system.
“It turned out faculty were dating or married to people doing business with the university system. It was everywhere, and the system wound up having to go through extreme efforts to get that all disclosed,” he said.
At the county level, similar connections are a big concern “because we have millions of dollars we give out in contracts and we have a lot of people who have spouses who do business with the county,” he said.
Marc Lemoine said his wife was listed as a firm member only because “when you’re an LLC you need a couple of members ... but she makes no decisions about how my company is run. I never realized it could be a problem.”
Informed last week that his family business would not be getting a contract to complete the design of two fire stations, he said it was “total shock.”
“This is a small city,” he added. “It’s hard to imagine that my situation is unique.”
Sisolak is thinking the same thing.
“It’s clear to me this happened multiple times and I have a hard time believing this is the only instance,” he said.