Judge to allow bail for ex-water regulator charged in bribery scheme

A Las Vegas judge on Monday paved the way for a former state water regulator charged in a $1.3 million bribery scheme to seek his release on $250,000 bail.

After a brief hearing, Justice of the Peace William Jansen allowed Robert Coache's father to put up the entire $250,000 in cash. The father had brought a $250,000 check to court.

Prosecutors did not object to the source of the bail funds, and Jansen said he was convinced that the money was not "coming from ill-gotten gains."

Jansen, however, placed conditions on Coache's release from the Clark County Detention Center. He ordered Coache to surrender his passport and prohibited him from withdrawing funds from any of his companies or selling his real estate properties.

Coache, 52, a retired deputy state engineer with the Nevada Division of Water Resources, and Michael E. Johnson, 51, a former chief hydrologist for the Virgin Valley Water District, were charged last week in a 25-count criminal complaint with misusing their public offices to help a wealthy Bunkerville landowner sell valuable water rights. The bribery scheme occurred between January 2006 and May 2008 while both men were in office, the complaint alleged.

John Lonetti Jr., 77, who is not charged, ended up selling the Virgin River rights to the Southern Nevada Water Authority for $8.4 million. The water authority cooperated in the Las Vegas police investigation, which is continuing.

Coache's lawyer, Bret Whipple, contends that the district attorney's case against Coache is weak and that his client is the victim of a political power struggle over water in the community of Mesquite.

But Chief Deputy District Attorney Marc DiGiacomo has argued that financial documents show both Coache and Johnson laundered the cash through a series of transactions, including the purchase of several homes for themselves and family members, and investing the $438,500 in Texas. Jansen on Monday prohibited Coache from having access to the Texas funds.

Prosecutors contend Coache and Johnson funneled the $1.3 million kickback through a partnership called Rio Virgin LLC.

Coache, who retired from his state job last May, and Johnson, who resigned under fire from the Virgin Valley Water District in August, are facing a variety of felony and gross misdemeanor charges, including bribery, extortion and money laundering.

Johnson has not yet sought to post bail.

Contact reporter Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-8135.