If ever in doubt, disclose.
That small bit of political wisdom has the potential to prevent a lot of grief for a lot of elected officials. You can’t be accused of having something to hide if you don’t hide anything, after all. And while disclosure may give political opponents some material to attack with, a politician can undercut those revelations with the simple reply that the public knows all about it because it was fully disclosed.
And that goes double if the rules don’t require it.
Here in the murky swamp of politics that is Nevada, elected officials have continually thwarted all efforts at campaign reform, even the simple definition of what constitutes a “gift” that needs to be reported on annual disclosure forms. Although the state ostensibly requires anything worth $200 or more to be disclosed, the rule is routinely violated, ignored or subverted.
That came to light last week when former state Sen. Sue Lowden attacked her primary opponent in the race for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Mark Hutchison, R-Las Vegas, for failing to report a five-figure, all-expenses paid trip to Israel in 2013 underwritten by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Hutchison — who went on the trip with three fellow Nevada state senators — had previously told the Las Vegas Sun’s Andrew Doughman that disclosure wasn’t required under a legal opinion issued by the Legislative Counsel Bureau.
Lowden appeared skeptical about that opinion, calling on Hutchison to release it. But she can rest assured that the opinion undoubtedly exists and offers lawmakers a very safe harbor if they choose to keep things secret. If nothing else, the Legislative Counsel Bureau jealously guards elected officials from even the slightest intrusions of the executive branch, which in this case is the keeper of disclosure forms, Secretary of State Ross Miller.
But that’s just the point: It’s not what’s legally required that counts, it’s what’s right. Or, to look at it in purely pragmatic terms, it’s what the public would expect of their elected servants.
For example, when Democratic Assembly members William Horne and Kelvin Atkinson and then-state Sen. Steven Horsford took trips to London and the Bahamas, respectively, underwritten by the company PokerStars, they didn’t disclose the travel. When political commentator Jon Ralston revealed the trips, it appeared the trio had something to hide, although all three claimed they did not. They also cited a counsel bureau opinion to justify the lack of disclosure, but by that time the damage was done. (It didn’t help that Horne introduced a bill tailored to PokerStars’ interests in the 2011 session; it failed to pass, although he later shepherded an online poker bill through the process in a single day during the 2013 session.)
Wouldn’t it have been better, and far less controversial, had those lawmakers disclosed their trip? Yes, they would have been vulnerable to charges of being influenced by the group, but that happened anyway. And would not Hutchison — an attorney and former chairman of the state Ethics Commission, once called upon to judge disclosure cases — have been better served by fuller disclosure earlier?
Surely the answer is yes: Shortly after Lowden’s allegations went public, Hutchison and his fellow lawmakers amended their disclosure forms to report their Israel trip.
Campaign finance disclosure laws in Nevada are a joke, and an obscene one at that. But attempts by secretaries of state of both political parties to reform the rules have met with barely concealed — and bipartisan — hostility. That needs to change, but it won’t until the public demands change.
“If you are corrupt, it’s very easy to get away with it, which casts doubt on the whole system,” former state Sen. Sheila Leslie told the Sun.
In the meantime, another piece of political wisdom: The cover-up is always worse than the crime. And that’s true even if there’s no crime in the first place.
If in doubt, disclose.
Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or email@example.com.