Las Vegas Sun

August 18, 2022

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Short-staffed ethics commission wading through flood of cases

In October 2009, a contractor who had accepted a job with the state asked the Nevada Commission on Ethics whether he could work that job while also consulting for the state — a practice critics call double dipping.

Two years later, when the contractor, Frank Woodbeck, was appointed, head of the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, he still had no written opinion addressing that question. All Woodbeck had was the commission’s 6-1 verdict that he could do both as long as his tasks didn’t change — spelled out in a transcript of the meeting, running hundreds of pages.

The ethics commission is supposed to be both good cop and bad cop. It reviews complaints and investigates ethics violations, but also offers direction to elected officials and public employees about where the line should be drawn in specific situations. That mission is threatened by a stagnant budget and rising caseload.

“Clearly yes, (lack of funding) has inhibited our ability to do our job effectively,” said Caren Jenkins, the commission’s executive director. “We don’t have sufficient staff to stay on top of our workload.”

As the Woodbeck case illustrated, the commission is two years behind in issuing opinions.

It has also been 10 years since the commission last published a digest of its opinions. Because of that delay, the state’s laws have not since 1997 been annotated with the commission’s opinions, which allows officials and the public to easily cross-check what relevant ethics opinions might apply to a particular law.

Policing ethics might be a less tangible government service, but it’s an important one — serving as a sort of referee in making sure the public’s business is conducted aboveboard. Not only does it govern elected officials, but also the tens of thousands of public employees in the state. And like other parts of state government — museums, schools, universities, health care — ethics has been cut.

The five-person staff at the Ethics Commission prepares the appointed board for monthly meetings, where it investigates complaints and gives advice to public employees and officials who request them. It also successfully appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court a decision that threatened the ethics commission’s jurisdiction.

“We’re being asked to do more with less, like every agency,” said Paul Lamboley, the commission’s vice chairman.

Last year, Jenkins toured the state speaking to local government officials and employees to raise awareness about the state’s ethics laws. That, she said, prompted an increase in requests for advisory opinions.

The commission is fielding three times the number of requests for opinions than it did in 2005, while its budget has remained unchanged.

“The volume of requests for opinions has gone up, as well as the complexity of requests,” Jenkins said. “As time goes by, people have lawyered up. Everyone hires a lawyer. The process has become much more formal.”

In Woodbeck’s case, that meant there was no clear, concise opinion, or even an abstract released with Woodbeck’s name and identifying information redacted. Instead, the only information was a long transcript that Gov. Brian Sandoval’s office had to wade through. Sandoval’s spokesman has given Woodbeck a vote of confidence in doing both jobs.

The Commission on Ethics requested a paralegal and investigator during the 2011 session, but were denied by Sandoval and the Legislature.

This is not a surprise. When programs for the poor and elderly are being cut, the state is by no means awash in cash. But there are some areas where the state found money — they have beefed up the Economic Development budget and created a $5 million “catalyst fund” to dole out incentives for companies moving here.

Funding the agency that could potentially draw attention to elected leaders’ questionable conduct falls somewhere down the priority list. The Nevada Commission on Ethics on Thursday formed a subcommittee to figure out how to reduce the wait time for written opinions.

Over 30 opinions have yet to be written, Jenkins said, but are on hold because of more immediate ethics cases. “We’re treading water as fast as we can. We are on fire, and it’s accumulating,” Jenkins said.

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