The state’s investigation into Carolyn Edwards, board president of the nation’s fifth-largest public school system, will not be dismissed.
The Nevada Commission on Ethics unanimously denied Edwards’ request Wednesday to throw out its investigation of her actions during last year’s general election – and will instead dig deeper into whether she violated state law that prohibits spending public dollars to lobby for a measure to increase property taxes.
“I have many questions,” Commissioner Cheryl Lau said.
A hearing – yet to be scheduled – will likely follow Wednesday’s action and involve calling witnesses to testify before the commission, which will then render an opinion deciding whether Edwards broke the law. If she is found to have willfully done so, Edwards could be fined up to $5,000 and face the possibility of being removed from office.
“This is a very important case,” said Chairman Paul Lamboley, emphasizing that the commission’s opinion will “no doubt” have an effect on the actions of Nevada government agencies during elections.
In the 2012 election, the Clark County School District posed a ballot question to county voters, asking them to increase property taxes by 21 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, generating an estimated $669 million over six years for improvements at 40 schools. The ballot question overwhelmingly failed after 66 percent of voters rejected it.
Before the election, Edwards had a district employee send an email blast on Oct. 20 seeking volunteers to “distribute door hangers and yard signs to registered voters encouraging them to support Question 2.”
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.
Clark County School District Associate Superintendent Joyce Haldeman is also being investigated for using district resources to transport, store and disperse campaign materials supporting the passage of Question 2.
Although Edwards remained silent at Wednesday’s meeting at the Sawyer Building, her lawyer, Sen. Mark Hutchison, R-Las Vegas, offered a slew of reasons for dismissing the case, even blaming the state Legislature at one point.
Edwards is not denying her actions, but “there was no violation,” Hutchison said.
Commissioners didn’t find it so clear cut and called for the investigation to continue.
“The email raises more questions,” said Commissioner Tim Cory, alluding to a portion of the message where Edwards directs volunteers to contact the district’s Community and Government Relations office at 799-1080. The office is headed by Haldeman.
It seems the office’s staff organized campaign efforts, indicating that the violations extend far beyond a secretary sending one email, said Martin Dean Dupalo, president of the Nevada Center for Public Ethics, a nonprofit that monitors the actions of Nevada politicians. Dupalo was in the audience Wednesday.
Hutchison contended that precedent set by commission opinions requires Edwards’ actions to be done for a “political purpose” resulting in a cost to taxpayers for a “ballot question” campaign. He argued that none of these criteria are met.
According to Hutchison, Question 2 wasn’t really a ballot question when Edwards had the email sent on Oct. 20 because voters hadn’t cast their ballots yet. And Edwards would not have politically gained from Question 2’s passage because she was not up for re-election until 2014. Her intentions were to provide “information,” he said.
“It sure seems like a political purpose when someone says ‘I want you to support this ballot measure,’” said Commissioner Gregory Gale, who also was critical of the semantics of Question 2 not being a ballot question until votes were cast. Sample ballots had already been sent at that time.
Hutchison then tried to minimize the expense, claiming it only took the secretary 30 seconds to send the email, which equates to 20 cents of her pay.
“State law says you may not use government resources at all,” no matter how minimal, Gale said.
Hutchison’s main defense was a Nevada statute requiring school board members to make sure schools are well maintained and cared for. He said Edwards was just fulfilling that duty and did what she must to support the ballot question, which put her in direct conflict with the Ethics in Government law. The law needs to be changed, he said.
Nevada law says school board members are responsible to care for schools, Commissioner Keith Weaver replied. But having an elected official use government email and staff to send an email to hundreds of people for a political campaign is “not acceptable.”
The complaint against Edwards was filed by Michael Silbergleid on Feb. 25.
Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0279.