The ex-wife of poker standout Phil Ivey has upped the ante in their divorce case by asking the Nevada Supreme Court to disqualify the judge assigned to the matter.
Luciaetta Ivey recently filed a petition with the high court that raises questions about campaign contributions her ex-husband and his lawyers made to Family Court Judge Bill Gonzalez, who presides over the sealed divorce case. The divorce was granted in December 2009, and the contributions were made in early 2010.
"The public is entitled to know that impartiality is the rule for the judiciary," says the petition, which is not sealed. "Further, Luciaetta is entitled to fairness and the appearance of fairness before this court and recusal is the only way that she can be sure to receive both."
The document was prepared by Henderson attorney Bruce Shapiro, who declined to comment. It revives concerns about potential conflicts of interest created when judicial candidates collect campaign contributions from lawyers or parties who appear before them, and about Nevada's guidelines for when such donations should cause a judge to step down from a case.
One legal ethics expert who reviewed the petition said he thinks a new judge should be assigned to the Ivey divorce case "to ensure public confidence."
University of Nevada, Las Vegas law professor Jeff Stempel, who teaches professional responsibility, described Nevada's disqualification law and practice as "kind of anemic."
More than other jurisdictions, the law professor said, Nevada favors keeping judges on cases that are assigned to them. In fact, Stempel said, the state Supreme Court has rejected recommendations for making the disqualification standards stricter.
"It's always possible that any given case could be the one where the court takes a stronger position on disqualification," he added.
'I WAS BLINDSIDED,' LUCIAETTA IVEY SAYS
According to the petition, the couple were married on May 19, 2002, in Las Vegas, and their divorce decree was entered on Dec. 29, 2009. The case was sealed at the request of both parties.
Luciaetta Ivey, who now lives in Tampa, Fla., said they both wanted the divorce. She said she hired Shapiro in March after she began to question the fairness of her divorce settlement, and the lawyer brought the campaign contributions to her attention.
"I was blindsided," Luciaetta Ivey said during a recent telephone interview. "I was very upset. I was very disgusted."
She said Phil Ivey had given money to Barack Obama's presidential campaign, but she had never known him to donate to a judicial campaign.
In June, Luciaetta Ivey filed a motion in Clark County Family Court that raised new issues in the divorce case. The motion was to be heard by Gonzalez, but Luciaetta Ivey filed an "affidavit of implied bias or prejudice" based on the campaign contributions.
Gonzalez, in turn, filed an affidavit in which he stated his belief that he is "capable of rendering judgment in this matter in a fair and just manner."
Stempel said that comment suggests the judge applied the wrong standard in refusing to recuse himself.
"Judge Gonzalez's personal view as to his ability to be impartial is irrelevant," the law professor said. "What is relevant is whether a member of the public would have reasonable concerns over his impartiality."
In August, Luciaetta Ivey filed a motion to disqualify Gonzalez, which her ex-husband opposed. The following month, Chief District Judge Jennifer Togliatti denied the motion.
That's when Luciaetta Ivey and Shapiro turned to the Nevada Supreme Court, arguing "that it would appear improper, even unseemly, for Judge Gonzalez to be able to hear a matter involving his largest individual campaign contributor." The case is scheduled to return to Gonzalez's courtroom on Tuesday.
"Cases like this are one more reason why an elected judiciary is problematic," said Stempel, who favors a merit-selection system for judges.
Gonzalez was appointed by then-Gov. Jim Gibbons in March 2009 to fill a vacant seat. Voters elected Gonzalez to the seat in November 2010.
PHIL IVEY DONATED $5,000 TO JUDGE
According to the petition Luciaetta Ivey filed with the high court, she has learned that her ex-husband contributed $5,000 to Gonzalez's campaign on April 17, 2010. Phil Ivey, considered one of the world's best poker players, did not contribute to any other Family Court judge.
Stempel, the law professor, said Phil Ivey's contribution to Gonzalez's campaign "obviously" meant he was happy with the divorce settlement "and may have anticipated possible challenges."
The petition alleges that attorney David Chesnoff, who represents Phil Ivey in the divorce case, was active in the judge's campaign and contributed $1,000 on Feb. 9, 2010; that Chesnoff's wife contributed $2,500 on April 21, 2010; that Chesnoff's partner contributed $1,000 on April 21, 2010; that Chesnoff made an in-kind contribution of $3,500 on April 8, 2010; and that the law firm of John Spilotro, whom Phil Ivey had "hand-picked" to represent Luciaetta Ivey in the divorce, contributed $500 on April 20, 2011.
Gonzalez's campaign contribution report indicates that Spilotro's firm actually made its donation in 2010.
According to the petition filed by Luciaetta Ivey, Phil Ivey's contribution equaled 7 percent of Gonzalez's cash campaign contributions, and the total of $10,000 donated by Phil Ivey, the Chesnoffs, Chesnoff's partner and Spilotro equaled 14 percent.
"The circumstances are too, kind of, suspicious and the amount of money is too great relative to the amount of campaign contributions the judge received overall," Stempel argued.
Gonzalez raised about $71,000 in cash donations in 2010, and his in-kind donations for the year totaled about $14,000.
For a Family Court seat, according to Luciaetta Ivey's petition, "the amounts at issue were considerable."
"Moreover, this race was relatively close despite Judge Gonzalez being an incumbent," Shapiro wrote. "Judge Gonzalez won the race by less than 10 percent."
In Nevada, individuals may contribute no more than $10,000 to a judicial candidate. The state has no laws limiting the amount of contributions judges may accept from those appearing before them.
"It's clear that small campaign contributions in the ordinary course of business are not enough to support recusal," Stempel said.
But state law bars judges from presiding over cases in which they have "actual bias or prejudice for or against one of the parties." The Nevada Supreme Court took the law a step further in 1977, ruling that "recusal would be a necessary step to alleviate or obviate" even the appearance of impropriety.
According to the Nevada Code of Judicial Conduct, "A judge is disqualified whenever the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned."
Commentary in the code further states, "Although lawyers and others who might appear before a successful candidate for judicial office are permitted to make campaign contributions, the candidate should instruct his or her campaign committee to be especially cautious in connection with such contributions, so they do not create grounds for disqualification if the candidate is elected to judicial office."
'STRANGE CIRCUMSTANCES' ALLEGED
Chesnoff declined to answer questions about the Ivey case, but he and partner Richard Schonfeld issued the following joint statement:
"The chief judge of the District Court agreed with Mr. Ivey's position and found that there was not even an appearance of impropriety or any bias on the part of Judge Gonzalez. In addition, Rule 60(b) of the Nevada Rules of Civil Procedure clearly states that unless action is taken within six months of the date of the signing of the decree, a party is barred from proceeding. Therefore, (Luciaetta Ivey's) counsel was well beyond the time permitted in filing anything in this action on (her) behalf."
Shapiro cited the same rule in the petition he prepared for Luciaetta Ivey. According to the document, the donations occurred after an uncontested divorce decree was entered "but before the six-month mark after which Luciaetta could no longer bring a motion pursuant to NRCP 60(b) to have the decree set aside based upon a mistake, newly discovered evidence or fraud."
"Certainly, given the strange circumstances of the divorce which included Phil and/or his counsel choosing Luciaetta's attorney, the marital settlement agreement failing to disclose the values of Phil's assets, and there being no appraisals of the parties' substantial property, it is conceivable that Phil realized that Luciaetta might try to have the decree overturned," Shapiro wrote. "Likewise, it is certainly conceivable that Phil wanted to curry favor with judge Gonzalez if Luciaetta ever tried."
Chesnoff "directed" Luciaetta to hire Spilotro as her divorce attorney, according to the petition, and Phil Ivey paid Spilotro a flat fee of $10,000.
Spilotro, who no longer represents Luciaetta Ivey, said he could not recall specific details about the payment of his fee. However, he said one spouse often pays for the other's lawyer in divorce cases.
"She wasn't employed," Spilotro said of Luciaetta Ivey. "Somebody's got to pay."
The couple's "total community income" for 2008 was nearly $8 million, according to Luciaetta Ivey's petition, which cites the couple's joint tax returns.
SPOUSAL SUPPORT STOPPED
Phil Ivey, who has won eight World Series of Poker gold championship bracelets since 2000, is tied for fifth place on the tournament's all-time list. However, he opted not to play in the 2011 tournament, which ended last week at the Rio.
In a statement posted on his website, Phil Ivey said he was "embarrassed" that his online sponsor, FullTilt Poker, had not paid players owed money after the Justice Department shut down the operation in April.
"I am not playing in the World Series of Poker as I do not believe it is fair that I compete when others cannot," according to the statement. "I am doing everything I can to seek a solution to the problem as quickly as possible."
He also filed a lawsuit in Clark County District Court in June, saying allegations of illegal activity surrounding Tiltware, a California-based company that operates FullTilt, damaged the poker player's reputation within the gambling community because of his association with the website.
In the lawsuit, Phil Ivey claimed FullTilt, whose founders were charged in a nine-count federal indictment in April, owes U.S. players about $150 million.
Phil Ivey has won almost $5.3 million in his World Series of Poker career, and he has earned more than $13.8 million in tournament poker.
Luciaetta Ivey alleged in the petition she filed with the state Supreme Court that her ex-husband has stopped paying spousal support. According to the petition, Chesnoff claimed the marital settlement agreement "permitted Phil to cease doing so as he was no longer receiving income from one of the businesses."
"Shapiro requested documentary confirmation of Phil no longer receiving income from the business, but Chesnoff refused to provide it," the petition alleges.
Luciaetta Ivey said her ex-husband made monthly alimony payments from January 2010 until April of this year. She declined to disclose the amount.
She said she and Phil met when they were 17 and living in New Jersey. Back then, she said, Phil had no money.
"The majority of his money was earned during the course of the marriage," she said.
They are both 34 and have no children.
Luciaetta Ivey said she and Phil dated while she attended Rutgers University. She received a bachelor's degree in public health in 2000, but she did not pursue a career after her graduation.
"That was our decision as a couple," she said.
By that time, Phil Ivey was playing poker full time and traveling extensively. The couple moved to Las Vegas in 2004, and Luciaetta Ivey said she made her share of sacrifices during the marriage.
"He had a very grueling schedule," she said. "He had very long hours. He traveled a lot, and I had to deal, you know, with my husband not being around."
As evidence of her contributions to the marriage and her husband's career, she pointed to Phil's 2004 interview with Card Player Magazine, in which he was asked: How has your wife affected your poker career?
"She is such an asset," he responded. "She helps me out with everything I can't do, which is everything. I can't do anything because I'm playing poker all the time. She takes care of me, and is definitely a help when I lose. She's there, and I feel like everything will be OK. Without Luciaetta, I wouldn't be nearly this successful."
Luciaetta Ivey recently co-founded a boutique firm that specializes in nonprofit consulting, event planning, celebrity hosting and public relations. She said she hopes that by speaking up in her divorce case, her voice can help other women who find themselves in similar situations.
"A lot of times women don't really defend themselves," she said. "They just take what's given to them."
Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-384-8710.