Las Vegas Sun

April 20, 2024

Political favors ‘just the way you do business here,’ lobbyists say

It probably comes as no surprise that in Southern Nevada, some elected officials seek “political favors” such as air travel, hotel rooms and numerous other noncash perks from lobbyists.

It might be a surprise, though, that those same lobbyists say they are put off doing favors for the “electeds.”

Meanwhile, a top ethics official says he’s not surprised by any of it.

A half-dozen lobbyists and consultants interviewed by the Sun said they hated the age-old practice of supplying favors when asked by elected officials but did it because “it’s just the way you do business here.”

Supplying politicians with their requests isn’t part of all lobbyists’ stock.

But “the fact is, if you start doing it, you’re stuck doing it,” said one lobbyist, who said he or she was never asked to do favors by politicians. “Those who do it get stuck doing it forever. They’re screwed.”

Another lobbyist who spoke with the Sun gets asked frequently and is angry about it, not only because it “feels slimy,” but because the lobbyist believes the information he or she provides to elected officials about different issues is needed to help them make informed decisions.

“When you add this to it, it adds another layer, as though they wouldn’t talk to you unless you do this thing for them,” the lobbyist said.

None of the lobbyists would speak without anonymity for fear of losing their livelihood by being blacklisted by any number of elected officials. Neither would they agree to talk if this story gave specific examples of what southern Nevada elected officials have asked them to do.

But the practice exists and has existed for many years, said Martin Dean Dupalo, a former UNLV political science instructor (let go amid budget cuts in 2010) and current director of the Nevada Center for Public Ethics.

“I think it is quite prominent,” Dupalo said. “I’ve been here since 1974 and seen or heard about it indirectly over the years. It’s nothing new. Unfortunately, it goes hand in hand with the political mentality but also the fast-money mentality of Las Vegas.”

More specifically, Dupalo said Vegas was a part of the country steeped in the tradition of “comps” — if you do this, then you get that. Sit and play video poker at a bar and you are comped free drinks, for instance.

“Here, the coin of the realm is comps, so to speak,” he added. “Where you wouldn’t find it so prevalent in other major cities, it is played with very loosely here. So everything’s a favor or a comp and done regularly. I’m not sure people even think it’s wrong. It’s more accepted.”

Even if lobbyists feel they are being taken advantage of, Dupalo added, they are still getting something the average citizen doesn’t get: access. The entire process of giving and taking, even with gritted teeth, creates a lobbyist/politician bond that bystanders would find difficult to see as innocent.

State law addresses the give-and-take between politician and lobbyist. One law requires elected or appointed officials to report favors or gifts on financial disclosure statements if the value exceeds $200 from a single source over 12 months.

Another law says a public officer cannot “solicit or accept a gift that might tend to improperly influence a person in his faithful discharge of their duty.”

Caren Jenkins, Nevada Ethics Commission executive director, said these are the kinds of gifts — plane rides, junkets, hotel rooms — that “are simply prohibited, not just that they have to be reported.”

“Even if that individual could be independent, the public needs to and wants to know,” she added.

Another state law prohibits a public officer from using his or her government job to get “unwarranted privilege or advantage,” meaning perks that have nothing to do with their role in government.

Lobbyists, she added, “are there to influence legislation or policy and to do it for the right reasons.”

Any quid pro quo that takes place “sullies the entire process. It’s not just about the propriety, but it’s about the strength of the relationship,” Jenkins said.

What would happen, she wondered, if a lobbyist or consultant suddenly told a government official no?

“What if they can’t say yes? What’s the impact? If you don’t accommodate a request, will the (lobbyist and/or his client) be heard at the policy level?” she asked. “That’s why they hate it so much, but they say yes because they’re not willing to take that risk.”

Elected officials interviewed by the Sun say a quid pro quo relationship with lobbyists is always a bad idea.

“You set the bar early in your career,” said County Commissioner Larry Brown, adding that quid pro quo “is a slippery slope.”

If he knew a colleague was asking lobbyists for favors, would he intervene?

“Things we do and say reflect on the body as a whole, but it comes down to your individual choices,” Brown said. “It’s difficult to legislate behavior. You set the tone and bar for what you’re willing to do and what you’re not willing to do. The bottom line with lobbyists is you treat them no differently than every citizen.”

Even Dupalo admitted having laws are one thing, but enforcing them is entirely different.

“There is no practical oversight or accountability in this arena,” he said. “Comps are under the radar. The public is relying solely on the honesty of a lobbyist and politician to self-report. A lot of citizens generally see that as unsatisfactory, and rightfully so.”

Commissioner Tom Collins said lobbyists or consultants will many times ask if there is a “Little League or soccer team that needs some help. They’re looking for someone to help and want to be active in the community helping charity groups and whatnot.”

At those times, elected officials may direct them to groups or organizations they know about.

Like Brown, though, Collins said he frowned upon the idea of looking upon lobbyists as a source of tickets to shows, free or discounted hotel rooms, or any other kind of favor.

“They represent businesses and residents and (homeowners associations), and that’s what they do,” he said. “And I don’t have a problem with that. But if you give them access, you give the same to everyday citizens. Then you’re on solid ground.”

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