CARSON CITY -- State Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, criticized for promising access to himself and committee chairpersons for a price, has withdrawn the offer.
Horsford on Wednesday rescinded a letter he sent in July to prospective campaign donors that guaranteed them dinners and receptions with him and key Senate Democrats if they donated money to his political action committee.
For a person or organization donating more than $25,000, the letter promised a private dinner with the Las Vegas Democrat and the chairpersons of all Senate committees.
For $10,000 to $25,000, the donor would get a dinner with Horsford and any chairperson selected.
Lesser contributions would get only a luncheon or a reception with Horsford or a chairperson.
"If our fundraising letter has been misconstrued, we deeply apologize," Horsford said in a statement.
"The program in question has been discontinued. We believe that honesty and transparency is critical for Nevadans and their government. It has never been our intention to cross any boundaries. We are fighting to put Nevadans back to work, so that our state can prosper once again."
The solicitation letter did not violate any campaign or election laws, according to the secretary of state's office. Horsford's mistake was that he made such a direct offer in selling access, according to sources close to the Legislature.
"There is nothing in the letter that violates the law," Deputy Secretary of State Matt Griffin said. "The primary concern of people was it was so overtly 'pay to play.' "
State laws do not prohibit politicians from offering access if people contribute money, according to Griffin.
In fact, that is exactly what happens in all levels of politics, sources said, including presidential campaigns.
People who contribute money get right through when they call a politician. They can get their picture taken with the president or be invited to a dinner.
Horsford is not up for re-election until 2012, but he is trying to increase his party's membership in the Senate to a veto-proof, two-thirds majority so the Democrats can control the Legislature. The state is expected to face a budget shortfall of as much as $3 billion in 2011, and Horsford has said additional tax revenue will be needed to balance the budget.
The Democrats have a 12-9 majority now and need to pick up two seats to secure a veto-proof advantage.
Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas, said he knew nothing about Horsford's letter, although he chairs the Senate Government Affairs Committee, and the majority leader committed Lee and other chairs to dinners.
"I never talked to him about this," Lee said. "I am accessible to everyone. If you have an issue I am interested in, I will talk to you."
Sen. Mike Schneider of Las Vegas, who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
The solicitation effort was dropped after Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, and other Republican leaders questioned the pay-for-play tone of the letter.
"It was heavy-handed and left the impression he was selling access," Raggio said Wednesday.
"If you paid, you got a dinner; if you didn't pay, you didn't get any consideration. Pay less and you still get a dinner with a chairman. The more you give, the more your matters will be considered," he said.
Raggio said he has been told by lobbyists that Democrats are intimidating them into not giving donations to some Republicans or their issues won't be heard in 2011.
He insisted he never has promised anyone something for a donation and might even take a position against them if they thought they could secure a favorable vote for money.
Ray Bacon, a lobbyist for the Nevada Manufacturers Association, said Horsford's letter was "too blatant."
"He made a definitive connection between money and access," said Bacon, who did not receive the letter. "In 20 years of lobbying, I have never seen anything so blatant. You never are told, 'Give me money, and you get access.' Usually you give to the party caucuses and take your chances (that legislators will talk with you)."
But in past legislative sessions, key lobbyists such as Harvey Whittemore and the late Jim Joyce held considerable clout over legislators, in part because of their ability to secure donations and the power of their clients. Both represented the gaming industry and many other businesses.
In some sessions, lobbyists such as Whittemore would walk into offices of legislative leaders while others might have to wait hours to speak for a few minutes, if they could get an appointment.
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@ reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.