Legal trouble has dogged the sole Republican candidate for secretary of state of Nevada, who is being sued in Las Vegas and Southern California and was arrested in Florida on a theft charge.
Much of the trouble stems from claims that the candidate, Rob Lauer, ripped off a couple of customers purchasing aircraft from him over eBay.
Lauer denies any wrongdoing.
"I've probably bought and sold dozens and dozens of aircraft and trucks and engines and all sorts of stuff. Probably 100," the 39-year-old candidate said. "If we have a dispute over one aircraft or two, I don't think that is unrealistic in business nowadays."
Yet voters might be unwilling to overlook the string of allegations, especially for an office responsible for ensuring fair elections, regulating securities and properly registering businesses.
"One incident, maybe, but patterns are hard to dismiss as some sort of conspiracy," said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
"You do need people beyond reproach in that office," said Fred Lokken, a professor of political science at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno.
Since no other Republican filed in the race by Friday's deadline, Lauer, a candidate for Congress before switching to the secretary of state's race, skips straight to the November general election, where he'll face Democratic incumbent Ross Miller.
buyer says plane was 'total junk'
Court documents from Florida, California and Nevada detail three sets of allegations against Lauer.
The most serious stem from Lauer's 2006 attempt to sell a 1979 Piper Archer II aircraft for $72,000 to John Gruber of Broward County, Florida. The plane was advertised on eBay as being in perfect condition. But when mechanics inspected it after the sale, they reported dozens of missing parts, damage from a possible hard landing and more usage than was disclosed in logbooks.
The ensuing dispute over the sale led to Lauer's arrest in July 2007 on a charge of second degree grand theft. The criminal charge was dismissed for jurisdictional reasons. However, Gruber has an active lawsuit against Lauer in San Bernardino County, Calif., where the sale originated.
"He sold it as an aircraft that was completely refurbished," Gruber said in an interview. "When I had a mechanic inspect the plane (in California) we found out it was total junk."
Three people connected to the Piper deal say they've been contacted by an investigator in the San Bernardino County district attorney's office seeking information about the case. The investigator did not return numerous calls seeking comment.
Lauer says Gruber had unrealistic expectations about the Piper and accuses him of manipulating Florida authorities into pressing criminal charges to gain leverage in the civil lawsuit. Lauer cites as evidence an e-mail from Gruber that references the charges and that says Lauer could "stop all this" by refunding the purchase price.
"I think that shows courage and that shows character that I would not give in to extortion," Lauer said.
Two mechanics who inspected the plane on Gruber's behalf said the craft was missing critical parts, had sustained serious damage and had been subject to shoddy repair work.
Mechanic Tony Ritsman of Aero Trader in Chino, Calif., inspected the plane and wrote to Gruber it needed substantial work: "I can see two mechanics on this airplane for (four) weeks, if not more, plus whatever parts are missing or not airworthy."
Mechanic Mark Wilson of Aircraftsman Inc. in Chino said the plane had an incorrect and dangerous repair done to one of the wings. Wilson also said it appeared the plane had been damaged from a hard landing.
"If I knew who did this repair, I would report them" to the Federal Aviation Administration, Wilson wrote in a post-inspection letter to Gruber.
Wilson also researched the history of the airplane and found "more than twice the (flight) time as advertised."
The case is scheduled for trial June 21 in San Bernardino County Superior Court in Rancho Cucamonga, said Eric Gowey, Gruber's California attorney.
Plane's ownership questioned
The second airplane dispute was filed Dec. 24 last year locally in District Court and involves an aircraft identified in FAA records as a 1971 Hawker Siddeley BH 125-400A.
In court documents, the company T. Graham Capital LLC states on July 3 it paid Lauer $65,000 for the plane, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars refurbishing it and later found out "the aircraft was never owned" by Lauer's company, Aero Network of French Valley Inc.
Lauer said the dispute is over old liens against the aircraft that he is close to clearing, which he said would resolve the dispute.
Trevor Francis, president of T. Graham Capital in Dallas, said the two sides "settled under mutually agreeable terms."
Dan Howard, an attorney for T. Graham Capital, said the proposed settlement is confidential and would resolve his client's breach of contract dispute with Lauer. Actual ownership of the plane, however, is "a separate matter," Howard said.
A third dispute is in U.S. District Court in the Central District of California.
In that case, David L. Degeer accuses Lauer of owing back rent on space rented in New Mexico to store a truck.
Lauer, an Army reservist and military policeman, sought to break his lease under the Servicemembers' Civil Relief Act, a law that allows military members leeway to modify debt, terminate leases and postpone legal proceedings while on active duty.
Court documents say Lauer didn't properly notify Degeer of his activation, as required under the act.
Lauer said he sent notification via certified mail, but doesn't have the receipt.
candidate switched races
That a candidate with legal baggage is the only Republican to have filed to run for secretary of state, the third-highest office in Nevada, is evidence that the state Republican Party doesn't have the organization to recruit a deep roster of candidates, political experts say.
"It goes to some of the issues of the state GOP. They are just not recruiting well," Damore said.
Lauer campaigned for a congressional seat from October through January, but then abruptly announced he would abandon his campaign for Congress and instead run for secretary of state.
At the time, Lauer said that by engaging in a competitive primary with congressional candidate Joe Heck, "We'd both end up broke, and (incumbent Congresswoman) Dina Titus has $1 million in the bank."
In the secretary of state race, Lauer faces Ross Miller, the son of Bob Miller, the longest-serving governor in Nevada history.
Miller is considered a strong favorite to win another term.
"He is pretty much untouchable," Damore said. "He's an establishment guy; he hasn't done anything stupid."
Eric Herzik, a professor of political science at University of Nevada, Reno, said Republicans could have had a shot at the office had they found a candidate unencumbered by a series of business-related allegations.
"Ross Miller is a strong opponent; he is not invulnerable," Herzik said. "A well-functioning party would be recruiting candidates."
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at email@example.com or 702-477-3861.