Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010 | 7:50 p.m.
The longtime chairman of the powerful Assembly Ways and Means Committee has resigned from elected office to pursue a lobbying career, including a $10,000-a-month contract representing the court system in Clark County before his former colleagues.
Morse Arberry, a Las Vegas Democrat first elected to the Assembly in 1984, said he stepped down Tuesday to avoid a conflict of interest between his elected position and his lobbying work.
His sudden entry into the lobbying corps underscores the fact that Nevada has no law to prevent legislators from immediately peddling their influence with former colleagues after they leave office.
Other states and the federal government have one- or two-year “cooling off” periods to slow the spin of the revolving door between government and special interests that have business before the government.
Arberry, who formed Titan Partners on June 21, said he doesn’t believe in cooling-off periods.
“I think you have to hit things while the iron is hot,” said Arberry, who was in his final term in the Assembly because of term limits. “For 25 years I served in the Legislature and in public, and I bring relationships and a lot of knowledge to the table. A cooling-off period hinders an individual. Momentum you have is lost because then you’re not involved in the field.”
Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak laughed at Arberry’s comment. He called Arberry a friend, but said his remarks reflect “exactly why we need a cooling-off period.”
The Clark County Commission will vote on Arberry’s lobbying contract next week.
The Legislature convenes in February. Asked what he would be doing for courts in Clark County until the Legislature convenes, Arberry said, “I can best answer that after the meeting a week from now.”
Doug Pinkham, president of Public Affairs Council, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., that promotes best practices for ethics, said cooling-off periods are intended to remove even the appearance of impropriety.
“Whether it’s ethical or not, it doesn’t look good,” Pinkham said. Arberry is “using access and expertise to benefit clients. By benefiting clients, he’s making money.”
County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani called the proposal to hire Arberry to lobby for District Court and Las Vegas Justice Court “incredible.” She noted that the courts have proposed paying Arberry through administrative fees, which are tacked onto court fines, including parking and speeding tickets.
“While I respect that they (the courts) are the third branch of government, it continues to show they are out of touch with the budget issues we have in local government,” Giunchigliani said. “They don’t need a lobbyist. We should all be working together, not against each other. You don’t have to get people nailed with fees to fund lobbyists.”
Arberry would be paid $10,000 per month from September through June 2011, when the 2011 Legislature is scheduled to adjourn.
He would then be paid $2,000 a month through June 30, 2012. If a special session occurred during that time, he would get an additional $400 per day.
The court system did not issue a wide call for prospective lobbyists through a request for proposals.
Judge Art Ritchie, chief judge of the Eighth Judicial District, which encompasses Clark County, dismissed the hand-wringing over Arberry going to work as the court’s lobbyist. The same “civics discussion” came up two years ago when the judges hired a lobbyist and the contract came before the County Commission, he said.
The judiciary needs lobbyists because “we have a lot of common interests (with Clark County government), but we have a lot of interests that might be different,” he said.
As for signing Arberry, Ritchie said, “Frankly, we’re trying to navigate the legislative process. We’re judges, not legislators, so we need someone who can navigate the Legislature.”
Assembly Majority Leader John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, praised Arberry’s decades of service. Arberry knows the budget process as well as anyone in the state, he said.
But Oceguera added that he plans to introduce legislation that would establish a cooling-off period for retiring lawmakers before they can become lobbyists.
“There ought to be a time period because you are so close to your colleagues, you have to have some time and distance before you come back and come on the lobbying side,” he said. “It’s almost like you’re a colleague still, as opposed to a lobbyist.”
Turning to lobbying after leaving office is not without precedent for Nevada’s part-time citizen Legislature.
Former Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, a Henderson Democrat who decided not to seek re-election in 2005, returned to lobby for private-sector clients.
Two of Carson City’s more influential lobbyists, Pete Ernaut and Josh Griffin, also had brief stints as assemblymen.
Danny Thompson is a former Democratic assemblyman. He now wanders the Legislature as a lobbyist and head of Nevada AFL-CIO.
And then there are those who don’t even bother to leave office before becoming head of an advocacy group. State Sen. Mark Amodei, R-Carson City, served both as elected representative and president of the Nevada Mining Association. Former state Sen. Warren Hardy, R-Las Vegas, served as president of the Associated Builders and Contractors before he resigned in 2009 to continue in that paid position.
A number of local government employees also serve in the Legislature, prompting some to question who their true constituents are — the voters who elected them or their employers who sign their paychecks.
Julie Tousa, president of the Nevada Center for Public Ethics, said Arberry’s situation “is definitely a conflict.” She said his former position will give him an unfair advantage in the legislative process.
Although commissioners will consider the contract Tuesday, there is some question whether the courts need their approval because it is a separate branch of government.
If commissioners say no, Ritchie said, “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”
Giunchigliani said Clark County’s cooling-off period does not apply to elected officials. That’s why former Commissioner Chip Maxfield was allowed to become head of the Clean Water Coalition in 2009, within months of leaving the commission.
Giunchigliani will try Tuesday to gain enough votes to support a county resolution to incorporate a one-year cooling-off period for elected officials.
During the last legislative session, the Assembly passed a bill that would prevent local governments from hiring contract lobbyists. The bill ultimately died in the Senate. But it got near unanimous approval in the Assembly, including from Arberry.