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Lawmakers question Laxalt about recorded talk with gaming board chairman

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Carolyn Kaster / AP

Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, shown testifying about immigration issues before the House Judiciary Committee in 2015, is expected to appear before a joint meeting of the state Senate’s Committee on Finance and Assembly’s Committee on Ways and Means on Wednesday night.

Updated Wednesday, May 17, 2017 | 10:40 p.m.

Nevada’s top prosecutor says he was working within his authority when he met with a gaming regulator to discuss weighing in on a lawsuit involving the CEO of Las Vegas Sands.

Nevada Gaming Control Board Chairman A.G. Burnett and Attorney General Adam Laxalt answered questions from lawmakers who are considering legislation to set up independent legal counsel for the regulatory agency.

Burnett recorded a March 2016 conversation he had with Laxalt about a lawsuit involving GOP donor and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. Burnett said Wednesday that he submitted the audio to the FBI after consulting with Gov. Brian Sandoval’s office.

The conversation spurred the introduction of Assembly Bill 513, which would appoint independent legal counsel for the board. The bill was discussed Wednesday during a joint meeting of the Senate’s Committee on Finance and Assembly’s Committee on Ways and Means.

Laxalt said the conversation was not coercive and that he was simply having a discussion with a client about what course of action to take. He said the discussion had always been whether a brief should be filed in district or appellate court, and that he met with Burnett when it started to look like the Adelson case would not be appealed.

He told the committees Wednesday that separation of powers comes with occasional conflict. He said attorneys general and gaming regulators have argued in the past, and that this isn’t the first time it’s been proposed to move gaming board counsel out of the AG’s office.

“Even though it had been proposed before, consolidation of those functions all under one authority has never occurred for the best of reasons,” Laxalt said. “Simply put, the current structure works.”

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, asked Laxalt whether he had ever been asked by the gaming control board to recuse himself. Laxalt said that yes, that request had been made in this case.

Several Democrats at the hearing pointed out that Burnett was uncomfortable enough to record the conversation and turn it over to authorities, indicating what might be an unhealthy relationship.

Burnett also told lawmakers Wednesday that he stopped recording the conversation when he did because he felt “nervous.”

Assemblyman Chris Edwards, R-Las Vegas, said Laxalt’s conversation with Burnett looked like the AG was providing legal services as he should, “with a more hands-on approach than others might.”

Burnett said in an affidavit that the board decided not to provide input on the lawsuit involving Adelson for several reasons, one of which is that it could be seen as an “improper” endorsement of a Nevada gaming licensee’s legal argument.

A recently-released transcript of the conversation shows Laxalt telling Burnett that he knew getting the board to step in was a “challenging request.”

“The attorney general implied the District Court judge presiding over the wrongful termination case did not know the law and such a brief would simply educate the judge on Nevada gaming law,” Burnett says in the affidavit.

The FBI has found no wrongdoing on the part of Laxalt, who has said his actions were within the bounds of his job as attorney general.

"From Day One, he has been consistent about his role and level of participation, and it is clear that this inquiry was politically motivated and based on rumor and innuendo, instead of facts and truth," the Attorney General's Office said in a statement after the hearing.

Burnett said Wednesday that he was glad the recording was ultimately not needed.

Some Democrats and others say the conversation was an ethical overstep.

“After this evening’s hearing, it is clear that Attorney General Laxalt’s attempt to pressure the Gaming Control Board to intervene in a private civil lawsuit on behalf of his biggest donor has created an irreconcilable conflict,” Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, and Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, D-Henderson, said in a joint statement after the hearing. “In fact, Mr. Laxalt admitted on the record tonight that the board has gone so far as to ask him to recuse himself from representing their interests in this particular matter.”

They say the bill would provide the Gaming Control Board with its own independent counsel to eliminate possible interference from the Attorney General's Office on issues tied to the regulatory agency.

Nevada Republican Party Executive Director Greg Bailor said in a statement after the hearing that the legislation could hurt the Nevada Gaming Commission.

“They’ve chosen to pursue a political witch hunt and a partisan agenda that hasn’t helped one single Nevadan,” Bailor said.

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