Lance Iversen / AP
Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015 | 2 a.m.
CARSON CITY — Powerful law firm Snell and Wilmer had good news for its clients three days after the Nov. 4 election.
Legislative leaders chose Republican state Sen. Greg Brower, a partner at the firm, as the new chairman of the Senate’s judiciary committee.
The law firm, which specializes in government affairs and employs lobbyists, spread the news about the prestigious and influential nod with a public memo.
The announcement, filled with congratulatory rhetoric, cited Brower’s command in gaming law. It also carried an underlying message to its recipients: We have powerful people on staff.
The Nevada Legislature has long been known as a melting pot for political power brokers who wield authority in and outside of Carson City.
The 2015 session will bring more of the same.
Of the Legislature’s 63 members, seven work for firms that employ lobbyists, run campaigns and advise lawmakers during the session.
In Nevada, pundits have long mythologized a conflict-of-interest culture in the Legislature even if instances of impropriety seldom arise. Still, the hobnobbing often on display in the lobby easily lends itself to allegations of cronyism and unfair access to power in the close-knit political landscape of Nevada.
Lawmakers in these roles must play a game of ethical hop-scotch during the 120-day session. Some lawmakers have colleagues lobbying both chambers and testifying in committee meetings. Members of some firms also serve as advisers to lawmakers.
State law requires legislators to recuse themselves from participating in debate if they have significant financial interests or received substantial gifts that could be perceived as swaying judgment.
The state’s commission on ethics does not have jurisdiction to weigh in on legislative personnel matters. Only lawmakers can choose to address those matters within the Legislature’s ethics committees, said Yvonne Nevarez-Goodson, interim executive director of the commission.
“Certain conflicts of interest the state commission can’t touch,” she said. “... The commission has its own view about that.”
In this year’s session, the legislative brass in Senate leadership exemplifies the fine line between part-time legislator and full-time professional. Republican majority leader Michael Roberson and Democrat minority leader Aaron Ford both work for law firms that lobby lawmakers and tout an expertise in government. Roberson’s firm, Kolesar and Leatham, lists him as an expert in government affairs. Ford specializes in commercial litigation with Snell and Wilmer.
Other elected officials in the Legislature represent clients in front of government agencies. Democratic Sen. Tick Segerblom runs his own firm and represents cab drivers in front of the state taxicab authority, a relationship he must disclose. Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, a former lawmaker who now serves as Senate president in his executive branch role, represented Clark County School District board members and gaming officials in court.
There are lawmakers who aren’t bar members but work for influential firms. Republican Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, the chairman of the Senate finance committee, works for McDonald Carano Wilson, a firm with a strong lobbying presence. Ruben Kihuen works for the Ramirez Group, a consulting firm that employs lobbyists, runs political campaigns and contracts with the state health insurance exchange.
By its constitutional design, the DNA of Nevada’s citizen Legislature will inherently pose potential conflicts in a state where just a few industries — gaming, mining, insurance, construction — have hefty influence. Nevada is one of 16 part-time Legislatures that offer low pay and small staffs, forcing most lawmakers to have full-time employment. Those day jobs, for many elected to office, are in fields overlapping with politics.
In recent history, a few names with political weight also swung in the arms of the state’s revolving door of private influencers.
No lawmaker exemplified the duality better than the late state Sen. Bill Raggio, a storied Reno Republican and high-powered attorney. He was a partner with law firm Jones Vargas, now a part of Fennemore Craig, which routinely represented gaming, mining and insurance interests in the lobby. Raggio was on the board of Sierra Health Services, now UnitedHealth, one of the state’s dominant insurers.
Democratic Sen. Terry Care and McDonald Carano Wilson kindled the conflict of interest debate in 2009. The firm bought a print newspaper ad touting Care, who was a partner, as chairman of the judiciary committee. Care left the Legislature to lobby after the 2009 session.
Mark Amodei, a former Republican state senator and current congressman, was president of the Nevada Mining Association from 2007 to 2008. He served in the Senate from 1998 to 2010.
Warren Hardy, a former Republican state senator, presided for the Las Vegas chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors between 2003 and 2009.
Richard Bryan, a former Nevada state lawmaker, governor and U.S. senator who chaired the chamber’s select committee on ethics, said questions about legislative employment is the “nature of the beast” in a citizen legislature. He’s now a lobbyist for Fennemore Craig.
“Do lawmakers who work with law firms provide more access to their clients than other constituents? I don’t think so,” he said.
Bryan, who lobbied in the 2013 session, said there’s a host of industries known for close relationships with lawmakers.
“If Steve Wynn has an issue he wants to discuss with a member of the Legislature he would have no problem having time to talk to lawmakers.”
Lobbyist disclosure lists show a cadre of names from big-name firms representing 15 or more interests. Many of the firms — Snell and Wilmer, Fennemore Craig — often represent the same industries: gaming, insurance, hospitals, pharmaceuticals and banks.
Two freshman state lawmakers who took the nontraditional path to the statehouse have close ties with some of the state’s biggest industries.
Democrat Amber Joiner is a former state employee and health care lobbyist. Republican Mark Lipparelli is former gaming control board member. Both were appointed to their positions after the Nov. 4 election.
“You have a handful of interests and a small political class in the state,” David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV, said. “That’s the problem.”
Lawmakers with powerful firms aren’t alone in creating airs of potential conflict. More than a quarter of state lawmakers are either government employees or on the state’s pension program.
Eight lawmakers list the Public Employees’ Retirement System as a source of income and seven list Clark County as a source of income (four are with the school district), according to financial disclosures filed with the secretary of state’s office.
With a bevy of education and pension reforms on the table for the session, some question whether lawmakers with financial ties to the areas should vote on them.
The Nevada Constitution prohibits any branch of government from “impinging on the functions of another branch. The application of the law makes clear that judges and executive branch employees can’t simultaneously serve in the Legislature. But the boundaries aren’t as clear lower down the bureaucratic food chain.
Attorneys general opinions have helped define some of the complexities: Highway patrol officers can’t serve in the Legislature. Senators can’t serve on the tax commission. Lawmakers can’t serve on state boards. Public school teachers, once banned from serving, can participate.
In 2011, Democrat State Sen. Mo Denis was an employee of the Public Utilities Commission. The Nevada Policy Research Institute filed a lawsuit over his employment status, citing a breach of the constitution's separation of powers clause.
Denis resigned from the PUC the next day. The case landed in a Carson City district court but a judge dismissed the NPRI suit. An appeal to the state Supreme Court had the same result, leaving murky the application of the law.