A construction union consortium was negotiating with the developer of a new Las Vegas city hall at the same time City Councilman Steve Ross, who is an officer of the consortium, was voting to move the project forward, according to testimony Thursday before the Nevada Ethics Commission.
If he was voting for the city hall project while the construction group's president was talking about a labor agreement with the company that would build a new city hall, "that's a problem," Ethics Commission member Mark Hutchison said.
The commission took no action at the sparsely attended hearing and is scheduled to resume testimony on an ethics complaint against Ross this morning.
If an ethics violation is found, Ross could face fines of $5,000 to $25,000 and, in the most serious outcome, could be referred to District Court for possible removal from office.
Ross and Las Vegas City Attorney Brad Jerbic declined to comment after the hearing recessed Thursday.
The testimony that raised so much interest came from Rick Johnson, president of the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council, where Ross is secretary-treasurer.
Johnson said he started talking to Forest City, the developer of the new city hall, and Whiting-Turner, the general contractor, about a "project labor agreement" sometime around November 2008. The agreement governs wages, working conditions and construction standards.
He said he was "90 percent" sure from the time talks started that an agreement could be reached. That agreement has not yet been finalized.
The complaint against Ross, which was filed by three residents of his ward who don't agree with his votes on the council, lists three votes on the new city hall and suggests that Ross should have abstained from them: Nov. 19 and Dec. 3 in 2008 and Feb. 18.
"Did you see that as a conflict at all?" Hutchison asked Ross.
"The whole financing issue was up in the air until a few weeks ago," Ross responded. "We had no funding."
He said he started abstaining after the Feb. 18 vote because Mayor Oscar Goodman mentioned union pension funds as possible investors in the new city hall. On later votes, Ross abstained because of the talks between the trades council and Forest City.
Jerbic told commissioners that the city hall project had been tenuous until the last minute.
The City Council voted to approve the project Dec. 2, with Ross again abstaining, but it wasn't clear until the morning of the vote whether the city would be able to obtain affordable financing for it.
"This deal is a very fragile deal," Jerbic said. "There has been anything but certainty."
Jerbic also wondered whether Johnson's memory is correct, and said he would seek documentation of when the trades council and Forest City started talking to each other.
"It would be very surprising to me if that was accurate, given where we were at the time," he said. "There was no whiff of that at the city level."
Ross sought guidance from the Ethics Commission before seeking the secretary-treasurer office in 2007.
The commission said that it wasn't an automatic conflict of interest but that Ross would have to tread carefully to ensure his union duties did not conflict with his role on the City Council.
Johnson steps in for the union if there's a direct connection to City Council business, he and Ross testified Thursday.
It was unclear how much Ross knew about the talks with Forest City. He is expected to testify more this morning.
"The challenge," said Hutchison, "is you've got a private individual who is beholden to a trades council that is in hot negotiations with Forest City," and that person is also on the City Council.
"Anything that moves that project along I'm going to vote for? That's a problem," he said.
The trades council represents 16 local construction unions and works to promote union labor.
The complaint against Ross includes the three city hall votes and a vote awarding a bid on a new interchange at Horse Drive and U.S. Highway 95. That project involved a dispute between a union and nonunion contractor, and the nonunion contractor won the bid.
Contact reporter Alan Choate at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-229-6435.