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July 29, 2021

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Two top law firms have stake in governor’s race

Reid, Sandoval work for pillars of Nevada’s power structure

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Rory Reid talks about his campaign for governor during a meeting at the Las Vegas Sun Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2009.

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Brian Sandoval

If the leading candidates for governor win their parties’ nominations next year, the race will be more than a contest between a Republican and a Democrat — it would also pit a lawyer at one of the state’s most influential law firms versus another lawyer at another of the state’s most influential law firms.

With Republican candidate Brian Sandoval announcing last week that he has taken a job at Jones Vargas and Democratic Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid a longtime partner at Lionel Sawyer & Collins, both leading gubernatorial contenders have deep ties to firms that represent the state’s biggest industries, including mining, gaming and development.

Sandoval and Reid said there are firewalls between themselves and the government affairs, or lobbying, arms of their firms. They also said they will resign their law firm posts if elected.

But outside observers say the opportunity for conflicts — real and perceived — will be rampant this election cycle even by the standards of Nevada, with its long history of close ties between lobbyists and politicians.

“If you’re a citizen of the state and you’re paying attention to candidates running for office, your impression is, ‘My goodness. How independent can they be?’ ” said Guy Rocha, a Nevada historian. “It’s not people coming out of the grass roots. They’re not independently wealthy. They can’t say, ‘I don’t owe anybody anything.’ ”

David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV, said the candidates’ connections “speak to the incestuous nature of our politics. There’s a small number of people, a small number of interests.”

It gives rise to the perception that “it doesn’t matter what party it is, they’re tied to same people, funded by the same people,” Damore said. “At some level there’s some truth to that and that makes people think there’s not a big difference between the candidates.”

Sandoval and Reid denied that their day jobs present a problem for themselves or possible future constituents.

Sandoval, who resigned from his lifetime position as a federal district court judge in September, said a number of firms reached out to him before he settled on Jones Vargas.

“I’m a good lawyer and I’ve got to make a living for my family,” he said. “I can’t control public perception. No matter where I went, there would’ve been a question.”

Sandoval said he will have no contact with the practice’s government affairs division. Instead, he will draw a salary for launching an alternative dispute resolution practice, where he will serve as a mediator and arbitrator.

Reid, who was with Lionel Sawyer & Collins from 1988 to 1993 and rejoined the firm in 2000, also said he has nothing to do with his firm’s government affairs operation.

Reid said his track record as an elected official runs counter to the view that his day job is an entrenched position in the state’s establishment.

After he was elected to the County Commission in 2002, he and then-Commissioner Bruce Woodbury, who was also with a prominent law firm, worked to strengthen the county’s ethics rules.

Reid also said that as a commissioner, he has been willing to go against powerful interests. He cited changes the county made to the way development plans are approved and his call for a growth task force despite the housing industry’s opposition.

Still, some of Reid and Sandoval’s opponents see an opening in their law firm ties.

Republican Mike Montandon, the former three-term mayor of North Las Vegas, said their candidacies represent “attempts by the major lobbying firms in town to get their fingers into the governor’s office.”

Montandon reserved most of his criticism for Sandoval, one of his GOP rivals. By hiring Sandoval, Jones Vargas is “going to start their influence before he even gets into the governor’s office ... And they aren’t doing anything to hide it. As far as they’re concerned, the sooner the better.”

Jones Vargas has one of the most prominent lists of lobbying clients in the state, with attorneys there representing mining, gaming and residential developers, to name a few. Last legislative session, the firm had 10 lobbyists in Carson City.

Lionel Sawyer & Collins has a shorter list of lobbying clients, with seven paid lobbyists during the 2009 session. The firm is the state’s largest law practice and does work for Nevada’s most powerful companies on a variety of issues other than lobbying.

Nevada historian Mike Green said political power in the state has always rested with a few prominent law firms, most of which were started by former elected officials.

“It’s a time-honored problem in Nevada,” Green said, “partly because it has always been a small state in population or run by ‘six degrees of Kevin Bacon.’ They can’t help but know one another.”

Lionel Sawyer & Collins was formed in 1967 by three prominent figures: attorney Sam Lionel, Gov. Grant Sawyer and state Supreme Court Justice Jon Collins, who resigned from the bench to start the firm.

Jones Vargas is the result of several law firm mergers. Jones comes from former Nevada Lt. Gov. Cliff Jones, who formed a firm with his brother, Herb, and prominent attorney Louie Weiner in the 1940s. Green said Jones was close to U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran, hence his nickname, “Big Juice.” Vargas comes from attorney George Vargas, who joined a firm started by Gov. Morley Griswold in the 1920s. Later, longtime state Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, would merge his law firm with Jones Vargas.

“Both of these firms are part of a tradition of major Nevada law firms having considerable political influence,” Green said. “In a smaller state, power and money are concentrated in fewer hands. These firms reflect that past.”

The candidates may be downplaying their private sector jobs, but the firms aren’t shy about advertising the relationships.

The Lionel Sawyer & Collins Web site says the firm has “a history of partners coming from powerful state governmental positions,” noting Reid and former two-term governor and U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan are shareholders.

Jones Vargas ran newspaper ads last week to announce it had hired Sandoval. They featured the former judge with arms crossed and a mountain range in the background. After noting his resume — Nevada Legislature, state attorney general and chairman of the Gaming Commission — the ads stated: “This breadth of experience will make him an extraordinary asset to our clients in the areas of mediation and arbitration, as well as a great internal resource.”

David McGrath Schwartz can be reached at (775) 687-4597 or at [email protected] Michael J. Mishak can be reached at 259-2347 or at [email protected]

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