Las Vegas Sun

September 20, 2021

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Lawmakers have to declare gifts but aren’t willing to define them

Several state legislators took a jaunt to Israel last year, touring the Holy Land and dining beside the Sea of Galilee.

The largest Israeli lobbying group in the United States bankrolled the all-expenses trip, but when it came time this month for elected officials to report gifts they received in 2013, there was no reference to the trip.

The traveling lawmakers were only some of the elected officials in Nevada who accepted gifts sometimes worth thousands of dollars but declined to report them as required by state law.

Some of them dispute whether they legally need to report these gifts — in part because there is no explicit definition of a “gift” in state law.

A Sun examination of lawmakers’ financial disclosures found:

• At least four state senators — Greg Brower, R-Reno; Mark Hutchison, R-Las Vegas; Michael Roberson, R-Henderson; and Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas — took the trips to Israel sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group, which hosted various lawmakers from around the United States and introduced them to Israeli dignitaries.

• Clark County Commissioner Lawrence Weekly, a Democrat, failed to disclose receiving a leather jacket, an iPad and Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl tickets from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

• Two state education board members, Mark Newburn and Allison Serafin, did not report receiving an all-expenses paid trip to an education conference in Boston that included a flight on Elaine Wynn’s private jet.

• At least one legislator did not report $1,500 in expenses that the Nevada Mining Association paid for his attendance at a mining conference at Lake Tahoe.

Other elected officials interviewed by the Sun claimed to have paid for trips with their own money or with campaign accounts. Elected officials are often able to conceal the specific details of credit card bills.

Such non-disclosures could violate state law, which instructs elected officials to annually disclose gifts from a single person or organization with an aggregate value of more than $200 in one year and report these gifts on an annual financial disclosure statement filed with the Nevada secretary of state.

Secretary of State Ross Miller, a Democrat, said there are likely numerous elected officials who are receiving reportable gifts and not listing them on disclosure forms.

But “there’s no way for us to know” for sure, he said.

Although government agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service can audit your tax returns, there is no demand or protocol for a routine review or audit of elected officials’ disclosure forms or campaign expense reports to see if elected officials truly are using campaign funds to pay for conferences.

The Legislature has not passed a law giving Miller the authority to conduct audits, so enforcement of the law occurs only when citizens complain.

“It’s very easy to hide anything that you want to hide and your chances of getting caught are almost nil,” said former state Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, who tried and failed to pass ethics reform legislation in 2011. “If you are corrupt, it’s very easy to get away with it, which casts doubt on the whole system.”

Advocates for public disclosure say it’s important for the public to know who gives gifts to the elected officials because of how it might affect their decisions.

When pressed by the Sun, many elected officials claimed ignorance of the law or said they were confused about interpreting the disclosure law.

Weekly said he would amend his disclosure report to include gifts he received from the LVCVA.

“We’ll claim that,” he said, adding that he gave all the gifts away. “That’s not a problem.”

Serafin said she consulted Miller’s office after filing her initial report and intends to amend her disclosure report to reflect the private jet trip and expenses in Boston at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education summit.

Elected officials sign a statement on their disclosure forms that says “the information I have provided herein is accurate and complete.”

But there have been no recent cases brought against anyone who has filed an inaccurate or incomplete form.

Defining a gift

Some legislators dispute whether they should report trips that they call fact-finding missions related to their elected office.

“We’ve been advised that it’s not required to be disclosed because it’s neither a gift nor a campaign expense,” Ford said of his trip to Israel last October. “It’s an educational trip.” In 2011, then-Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson, D-Las Vegas, and Assemblyman William Horne, D-Las Vegas, said a trip to England sponsored by the company PokerStars was a fact-finding trip that didn’t need to be disclosed. They claimed to have permission from legislative lawyers not to disclose the trip.

Ford, Hutchison, Roberson and Brower — all lawyers — also claimed to have legal counsel from the Legislative Counsel Bureau that recommended they did not have to disclose their AIPAC-sponsored trips to Israel. When asked about this legal opinion, Legislative Counsel Bureau Director Rick Combs cited attorney-client privilege and said he was not “able to confirm its existence or not.”

Others claim they are confused about what should be disclosed.

Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno, was one of the legislators who attended the Nevada Mining Association conference and also went to Boston for the education conference.

While noting he’s advocated for transparency bills in the past, he said that many of these types of trips have never been reported as gifts before.

“I think many members (of the Legislature) thought that the mining conference was something that was never reported and people have been going to the mining conference for decades, or for a long time,” he said.

Miller disagreed with these arguments.

His office released a “financial disclosure statement guide” late last year which instructed elected officials to report as a gift “travel, lodging, food or registration expenses as part of a ‘fact-finding’ trip” and “fees, including membership fees, for an educational event” that an individual or group pays for on behalf of the politician.

In a memo obtained by the Sun, legislative lawyers argued that Miller’s guide was not an official state regulation and thus “cannot have the force of law and cannot be valid or effective against any person” violating the guide.

Miller said the guide was meant as a courtesy to provide elected officials additional clarity to an existing law, not create any new regulations.

“Nobody has ever pointed to any interpretation (of the law) that allows these items of value to not be disclosed, so ultimately if there’s no other interpretation of the law, we don’t need a guide to enforce it,” he said.

He said that willfully filing a false document violates state law and his office could take enforcement action on a “case-by-case basis.”

“When everyone is filing these reports, and they didn’t disclose items of value that are over $200, how did they interpret the statute in a way that would’ve allowed these items to be exempt from disclosure?” he said. “I’ve never gotten an answer to that question.”

Loose definitions lend leeway

None of this would be up for debate if legislators had passed a law that defined a gift. They have declined to do so several times.

Miller tried to define a gift in an omnibus ethics and campaign reform bill he introduced in 2013.

The provisions in SB49 related to gifts will establish what is a prohibited gift or what gifts may be accepted by a public officer or given by a donor; what is an acceptable gift to receive and give; who is a restricted donor; and what gifts must be disclosed.

Miller’s bill would’ve banned some gifts outright, and it would’ve defined acceptable gifts and established parameters for disclosure of such gifts. It also would have banned lobbyists from giving gifts to elected officials, which mirrors gift rules in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

That legislation, however, failed to pass when legislators objected to individual sections of the bill.

Advocates for good governance and ethics in government say elected officials could clear up the confusion by actually defining a gift in the law.

“Wouldn’t it be nicer for them if there were very clear laws on the books so there wouldn’t be these oversights all the time?” said Sondra Cosgrove, president of the Las Vegas Valley League of Women Voters. “We have a system where you only have to fix it if you get caught. It’s not supposed to work that way.”

She suggested that the secretary of state begin auditing reports to detect discrepancies.

Leslie said another way to encourage elected officials to report gifts would be to require lobbyists to file disclosure reports along with legislators, which would mean the public could in theory see who is giving gifts as well as who is receiving them. Such a system of checks and balances would encourage faithful reporting, she said.

Miller agreed.

“Apart from imposing a ban, an alternate policy would be to require an entity that gives an item of value to an elected official to report that, and that would give you some safeguards,” he said.

Under the current system, lobbyists disclose expenses during the state’s biennial 120-day legislative session. But otherwise, it’s the sole responsibility of a politician to disclose any gifts when the Legislature is out of session, said David Goldwater, a former Assemblyman and lobbyist for the Barrick Gold company.

“The system is stacked in favor of nondisclosure,” said Martin Dean Dupalo, president of the Nevada Center on Public Ethics, which advocates for greater transparency in government.

But few observers of Nevada’s political world think anything will change with campaign and ethics disclosure laws.

“There is absolutely no appetite here,” said Fred Lokken, a professor at Truckee Meadows Community College who has testified before the Legislature in favor of ethics and disclosure bills.

Leslie said that “the only thing that will really make a change is if there was enough pressure from the public” to encourage legislators to change the disclosure and reporting system.

But she’s skeptical.

“The public doesn’t really engage in it so there’s not really a price to pay” to continue not reporting gifts, she said.

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