Back in January 2004, after then-Gov. Kenny Guinn appointed Republican Las Vegas attorney Mark Hutchison to the state Ethics Commission, a problem quickly arose.
Under NRS 281A.200(4), no more than four members of the eight-member Ethics Commission can be registered with the same political party, and the commission apparently had its full complement of four Republicans when Hutchison got the nod on Jan. 6, 2004. Rather than step down, Hutchison — a lifelong member of the GOP — changed his party registration.On Jan. 29, 2004, Hutchison became a member of the Independent American Party, according to Clark County voter registration records.
“I answered the call of Governor Guinn to serve on the commission,” said Hutchison, now a freshman state senator and a candidate for lieutenant governor. “I was approached to make a change [in registration]. I registered with another conservative party and six months later, I switched back.”
Indeed, according to Clark County voter registration records, Hutchison re-registered with the Republican Party on June 23, 2004, after a fellow Republican left the Ethics Commission and opened a “Republican” slot.
The commission’s annual report shows four Republicans and four Democrats serving as of June 30, 2003, the year before Hutchison was appointed. Hutchison was listed as an “I” in the annual report filed June 30, 2004, apparently intended to mean “independent.” (In Nevada, true independents are called “non-partisans.) The 2005 report reflects Hutchison’s party change back to Republican.
All told, Hutchison served six years on the commission, both under Guinn and Gov. Jim Gibbons, who reappointed him in 2007. By all accounts, he did a good job on the body that seeks to enforce and interpret state ethics laws. His tenure saw high-profile cases involving former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman and former state Controller Kathy Augustine, whose stipulation to violating ethics laws before the commission led to her impeachment, the first in Nevada history. (Augustine received a light punishment when the case came before the state Senate; she was later murdered by her husband, who is serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole.)
Hutchison last year represented Clark County School District Board of Trustees President Carolyn Edwards before the commission, after she was accused of improperly using public resources to campaign for the district’s capital campaign. The website for his law firm, Hutchison &Steffen, lists one of his practice areas as election law and government ethics.
The party-registration issue raises some nonpolitical questions, however. If the panel already had four Republicans in January 2004 when Hutchison was appointed by Guinn, was his appointment still valid? Could respondents who came before the board and were found to have violated ethics laws now ask to have their cases re-heard as a result? And did Hutchison’s party switch fully cure the problem? (A second state law, NRS 281.057, says that “when the law creating any appointive state board or commission requires that political party affiliation be balanced among the members, no person may be appointed to any such board or commission who has changed party registration within the immediately preceding two-year period.” While that law is silent about changing party registration after a person has been appointed to a party-specific board or commission seat, the intent of the law is to thwart evading the party-affiliation requirement by simply re-registering with a different party.)
Hutchison said he’s not worried about his brief dalliance with the Independent American Party being used against him by his primary opponent, former Republican state Sen. Sue Lowden. Unlike Lowden, Hutchison said he has never donated money to or supported Democrats such as U.S. Sen. Harry Reid. “Sue Lowden was the original Republican for Reid,” said Hutchison, who said his first-ever presidential vote was in 1984 for Ronald Reagan. “I helped send Ronald Reagan to the White House, and she helped send Harry Reid to Washington.”
Hutchison and Lowden are scheduled to have their first debate Friday in Elko.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.