The attorney for Las Vegas Constable John Bonaventura is facing possible civil contempt penalties and sanctions after he and his client failed to show up for a federal court hearing Tuesday.
Since last week, Bonaventura has been trying to prove he didn’t improperly walk out of settlement talks at a federal courthouse without a judge’s permission. The constable and his attorney, Robert Pool, were ordered to appear before a federal judge Tuesday to argue why the court minutes reflecting the circumstances of their departure July 23 are inaccurate and should be changed.
This time around, they didn’t leave without permission. They never showed up at all.
Meanwhile, the judge also questions why the constable’s motion references “photographic evidence” that would support their argument. Court rules require a judge’s permission to use cameras in court, and the judge said none was given.
After the clock ticked past 1 p.m. and four other attorneys waited around, U.S. Magistrate Judge Cam Ferenbach finally started the hearing without the constable or his attorney.
Ferenbach has some questions he wants to ask Bonaventura and Pool, but they weren’t there to answer them. His forthcoming order could result in sanctions or civil contempt penalties for Pool, he said.
The lawsuit centers around Daniel Palazzo, a former captain in the constable’s office, and Timothy Beckett, a former lieutenant, who allege they were fired after they refused to lie at Bonaventura’s request. In their lawsuit, the two allege that Bonaventura wanted them to lie to Clark County commissioners about a reality TV show pilot that showed constable’s deputies using foul language.
The constable’s insurance company, Travelers Property Casualty Company of America, offered to settle with the two for between $275,000 and $425,000, depending on whether the constable retracts defamatory statements about them. But Bonaventura didn’t want to settle and sent the insurance company a letter of withdrawal. In turn, the insurance company filed a lawsuit seeking a ruling that it is no longer responsible for the case.
The constable’s motion to change the minutes argued that the judge had left and no one was present, citing “recorded photographic evidence from two sources.”
The photos probably wouldn’t have impressed the judge, who noted that the settlement conference required him to go back and forth among different parties in separate rooms.
“How that would prove I gave ... permission to leave the courthouse, I don’t know,” Ferenbach said.
No photos have been filed with the court, but last week Pool emailed a snapshot to the Review-Journal in response to a question about the settlement conference.
“This is the otherwise empty courtroom when the judge told us there was no point in continuing. So we left,” Pool wrote in a July 23 email.
The photo shows Bonaventura and a member of his legal team sitting at a table. Asked if he was the man in the picture, Pool on July 23 emailed the newspaper, saying, “Nope. I took the pic.”
Reached for comment after Tuesday’s planned hearing, Pool said: “I had no idea it was scheduled for today.”
Bonaventura didn’t directly respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The constable’s office has been besieged by controversies since Bonaventura’s election in 2010. They include a reality television video with foul-mouthed deputies, a deputy missing a body in a residence and lawsuits from former employees. County commissioners abolished the office, which takes effect when Bonaventura’s term ends in January 2015.
It’s unclear why Pool didn’t get the notice. The court’s notice of Tuesday’s hearing was electronically sent to lawyers on July 26, according to court records. The notice, which includes attorney email addresses, lists the same one Pool used to send the Review-Journal a photograph.
Late Tuesday afternoon, after the hearing, Pool filed a motion seeking to reschedule the hearing and arguing that he didn’t receive notice. The motion said the defendants were unaware of the hearing until contacted by the media.
The judge was puzzled by other statements in Bonaventura’s motion to change the minutes, which referred to “a higher court judge.”
“I’m mystified by that statement,” he said.
Ferenbach said it appears Bonaventura’s attorney didn’t familiarize himself with the process of a settlement conference. He also noted that it appeared Pool has only practiced law in a federal courtroom three times in the past 10 years.
After the hearing, Allen Lichtenstein, one of the attorneys who represents the officers suing Bonaventura, said: “We’ve been going through the process trying to settle it and get it behind us. Unfortunately, the constable seems to not care for the rule of the court.”
Ferenbach also said he would consider requiring the constable to cover the attorney fees and costs for those who showed up at the hearing. He plans to file an order, and Bonaventura will have a chance to respond.
The judge also took steps to make future proceedings in the case transparent. Bonaventura’s motion to change the court minutes was sealed. Ferenbach had ordered a closed hearing to hear arguments for why the motion should be sealed, with the condition that the hearing could become open at any point.
The Review-Journal’s legal counsel filed an emergency application on Tuesday to unseal the motion and open the hearing. Ferenbach unsealed the motion and allowed a reporter to stay for the duration of the hearing.
Contact reporter Ben Botkin at email@example.com or 702-455-4519.