Ethics Commission calls hearing on complaints against Clark County School District officials

Clark County School District officials are in hot water with the state over questionable actions taken to pass a property tax increase in the November election and the veracity of one incumbent board member’s campaign finance filings.

A state investigatory panel has found sufficient evidence to conduct a hearing into whether School Board President Carolyn Edwards and Associate Superintendent Joyce Haldeman used taxpayer resources to campaign for Question 2, the district’s proposal to increase property taxes, which is illegal under Nevada’s Ethics in Government law.

State law prohibits public employees from “requesting” or causing a governmental entity “to incur expense or make expenditure to support or oppose a ballot question.” There’s no wiggle room, said Caren Cafferata-Jenkins, executive director of the Nevada Commission on Ethics.

The commission will hold a closed hearing July 17. If Haldeman and Edwards are found to have wilfully violated the law, they could each be fined up to $5,000 and face the possibility of being removed from office or from their job. The commission’s investigatory panel said in its suggestion for a hearing that “uncontroverted evidence supports” claims that Edwards used district staff, and therefore taxpayer money, to help her campaign for the district’s ballot question, known as Question 2.

The ballot question failed after 66 percent of voters rejected it, but it would’ve increased Clark County property taxes by 21 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, generating an estimated $669 million over six years for improvements at 40 schools.

But the complaints related to Question 2 aren’t the only ones being reviewed by the Ethics Commission.

A complaint filed a week ago accuses second-term School Board member Deanna Wright of failing to report total campaign contributions on state-required filings and being more than a month late on the filing that was due Jan. 15. Wright said Wednesday that she was unaware of the complaint, but the late filing was an accident that the state forgave. She stands by the accuracy of her campaign contribution filings.

Cafferata-Jenkins has 70 days to recommend further investigation should enough evidence support the complaint. If not, it will end there.

That’s what happened in December when a person complained to the commission that Wright used email addresses obtained as a School Board member for her re-election campaign. Cafferata-Jenkins said the evidence wasn’t sufficient.

The Ethics Commission isn’t the only state agency looking at the Clark County School Board. The Nevada attorney general’s office is also investigating the School Board for potentially violating the state’s open meeting law.

Two complaints allege that the School Board broke the state open meeting law on May 21 by holding a surprise interview and appointing Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky without giving proper notice on the agenda. Although board members asserted they did no wrong, they re-voted on June 3 to prevent Skorkowsky’s appointment from being voided should the attorney general’s office find the original vote to be illegal.

Although Edwards and Haldeman didn’t return the Review-Journal’s calls for comment Wednesday, both said in a response to the commission that they did use district resources in the campaign for Question 2.

Edwards had a district employee send an email blast seeking volunteers in support of Question 2.

Haldeman directed district personnel to pick up campaign materials for the political action committee formed by four former Nevada first ladies in support of Question 2. District personnel then transported the materials from the printers in district vehicles to district facilities, where they were stored.

Haldeman defended her actions in October, telling the Review-Journal that the PAC would be billed $648 for those expenses.

“I personally made the decision to keep the materials here so parents wanting to volunteer could pick them up,” Haldeman said in October.

But the law states that the government cannot incur an expense, reimbursed or not, in supporting the ballot question, noted Michael Silbergleid who filed the complaint with the Ethics Commission.

If governments are allowed to do like the School District, they could spend $648,000 on a campaign and it would be fine as long as they’re reimbursed later, he said.

“It’s important CCSD realize they can’t play so fast and loose,” Silbergleid said.

Still, Haldeman asserts in her affidavit that she did nothing illegal. Her defense hinges on the claim that the district’s attorney was consulted concerning her actions and said she didn’t violate the Nevada law.

But Haldeman, who has led several bond campaigns with the district, didn’t ask for the legal opinion until after district resources were used on campaigning and doubt was cast on the legality of her actions, Silbergleid said.

“She should’ve known better,” he said.

Haldeman and Edwards can’t campaign on the taxpayer’s dime, Silbergleid said. That’s the line separating legal and illegal, and the law makes it quite clear, he said.

In addition to imposing fines, the commission’s greatest power is its ability to file a court complaint to remove an official for “malfeasance in office.”

Silbergleid doesn’t want all that.

“It’s not the fine that matters,” Silbergleid said. “It’s what they did. They need to stop doing this. I just want to hear them say, ‘I broke the law.’”

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.