Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011 | 2 a.m.
A party in Carson City to celebrate the Nevada Ethics Commission’s 35th anniversary last week has some elected officials questioning whether the public’s watchdog is juggling stones in a glass house of public perception.
As a way to recognize the often thankless task assigned to the Ethics Commission, its executive director, Caren Jenkins, organized the party at a Carson City barbecue joint.
She invited current and former commissioners and staff.
But the invitation, which came with a request for $33 to help Jenkins shoulder the cost of the event, also went out to some of the state’s top elected officials — officials who come under the purview of the commission, which can fine them or even seek their removal from office for violating state ethics laws.
The invitation, which was sent to legislative leaders, Nevada Supreme Court justices and the six constitutional officers, went unnoticed by some. Others were too busy to attend.
But some felt uncomfortable receiving the invitation.
“The Ethics Commission wields significant power over elected officials,” said one elected official who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being critical of the watchdog group. “It is disconcerting that the ethics head would hold a voluntary event requesting an admission fee from those she regulates.”
Not all elected officials agreed.
“The last thing on my mind was whether it was appropriate to attend or not,” said Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, who has appeared before the commission three times, to both defend himself against complaints and to seek guidance on a potential ethical problem. “The Ethics Commission serves an invaluable role, they provide clarification, a road map, and they are a resource. They work terribly hard.”
Controller Kim Wallin said she wasn’t offended by the request to help pay for the event, noting that elected officials shouldn’t attend such events for free. But she did say it raised concerns about socializing with commissioners.
“How chummy do you want to be with the commissioners? How independent would they be if you were friends with them?” Wallin said.
Jenkins said she volunteered to handle the money for the event, running the costs through her own checking account because the state has no mechanism for collecting money to hold such a gathering. She and the commissioners felt strongly that all the attendees pay their own way.
The invitation specifically said “no comps” would be allowed.
“They are paying for the meal,” Jenkins said. “It’s not like we’re fundraising. The $33 was to pay for the event itself. Nobody was making a dime on this.”
The only elected officials who attended were Carson District Judge Todd Russell, a former chairman of the commission, and Supreme Court Justice Michael Cherry.
Neither Russell nor Cherry are subject to the Ethics Commission because a separate commission oversees judicial officers.
The event was described as low-key by those who attended. One participant noted that soda was served, not alcohol.
“We had it at Red’s 395, not Adele’s,” Jenkins said of the high-end Carson City restaurant known as a favorite hobnobbing spot for lobbyists and lawmakers during legislative sessions.
Jenkins said the celebration was a sincere attempt to express gratitude for commissioners who usually bear the brunt of a difficult job.
“For something as pure as this event marking a 35-year anniversary when our founding people are aging and dying to be questioned, I find that to be very unfortunate,” Jenkins said.
“It never even crossed my mind that this would be seen as questionable,” she added before pausing for a second.
“Which is often what people say when they come before the Ethics Commission.”