A longtime Nevada lawmaker-turned-lobbyist faces potential prison time over allegations he failed to report more than $120,000 in campaign contributions and instead put the money in a personal checking account.
The accusations are contained in a criminal complaint filed Friday against former Assemblyman Morse Arberry Jr., D-Las Vegas, who served 25 years in the Legislature, including time as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
Arberry did not return calls or an email seeking comment.
The complaint charges Arberry with six felonies, three carrying sentences up to five years in prison and three with potential four-year sentences.
Legislative observers say the complaint represents the most serious charges stemming from a high-ranking state lawmaker's time in the Legislature since 1983. That is when former Sen. Floyd Lamb, D-Las Vegas, a longtime Senate Finance Committee chairman, was accused and later convicted of corruption charges and sentenced to three years in prison.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto said there would be no comments beyond the complaint.
"Anytime you see criminal charges related to a campaign finance issue, the ante has been raised," said one source familiar with the case who didn't want his name used, fearing political fallout. "It takes a seriousness that is above what you find in normal civil violations."
The case filed in Las Vegas Justice Court by Chief Deputy Attorney General Thom Gover accuses Arberry of depositing checks made out to his campaign into a personal checking account and failing to report the contributions on campaign reports.
The complaint stops short of charging Arberry with embezzlement, theft or other similar crimes that would be harder to prove and potentially allow more avenues for defense than the perjury and filing false reports charges that were included.
"It sounds to me like it is a more focused complaint to make it easier," the source said.
Arberry was first elected in November 1984 and served until August 2010. The allegations date only to Aug. 5, 2008. The statute of limitations for most felonies is three years.
Investigators from the secretary of state's office compared Arberry's campaign finance reports from 2008 and 2009 with his banking records and discovered discrepancies.
"These records included copies of many checks made payable to the 'Committee to Elect Morse Arberry,' 'The Morse Arberry Campaign' and/or similarly named payees," the complaint said. "Said checks had been deposited into Arberry's personal checking account. While some of the contributions had been reported, many had not been reported and in fact were never reported on subsequent campaign contribution reports."
The state's campaign finance law was designed to keep track of political donations and make voters aware of attempts to influence their elected officials.
A list of unreported contributions attached to the complaint includes large amounts from influential political and business entities, including utility, mining, gambling, liquor, banking, lobbying and medical companies, among others, and totaled $121,545.
Donors who contributed to Arberry said they were disappointed to learn they might have been deceived.
"It is always disappointing when the public gets another reason to be skeptical," said Billy Vassiliadis, who was listed as making a $1,000 donation in 2008 that Arberry didn't report on campaign finance documents but deposited into a personal account. Another $1,000 came from Vassiliadis' political consulting and advertising firm, R&R Partners.
"Still, I'd like to hear Moose's side of it," said Vassiliadis, using a popular nickname for Arberry, whom he described as "an old friend."
Another influential lobbyist with multiple clients listed as making donations that went unreported was shocked by the complaint.
"If all of that is true, holy smokes," the lobbyist said. "I've already gotten a couple calls from clients who are really upset."
It's not the first time Arberry has been the subject of controversy.
In January 2010, 8NewsNow reported Arberry had about $500,000 in unpaid taxes and debts.
Later that year Arberry resigned from the Legislature, months before the conclusion of his final term, to take a job as a lobbyist for Clark County district judges.
The County Commission voted against authorizing the lobbying contract, with opponents saying Arberry didn't put a long enough "cooling off" period between his time as a legislator and his attempt to become a lobbyist.
Arberry became a registered lobbyist and represented Frias Holding Co., a Las Vegas taxicab company, during this year's legislative session.
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3861.