Director argues state Ethics Commission needs more money

CARSON CITY -- The state Ethics Commission executive director told legislators Wednesday that her agency cannot do its job in a timely manner with its present staff and funding level.

"We have one investigator trying to investigate hundreds of cases throughout the state," Director Caren Jenkins told the Assembly Ways and Means Committee. "There is no way he can do more than a cursory review."

The Ethics Commission responds to third-party complaints about possible violations committed by state and local officials and offers officials advisory opinions on what constitutes appropriate behavior. The commission has a five-member staff.

Under Gov. Brian Sandoval's proposed budget, state support for the commission over the next two years would fall to $313,000, down from the current $424,000.

But 74 percent of the cases before the commission concern local officials and local government payments to the commission would increase to $931,000, compared with the current $788,000.

Nonetheless, Jenkins said she sometimes barely can afford the costs of paper and has made purchases on eBay to save money.

"We work on a shoestring," she said.

Jenkins said she will need the help of legislators to cover some of the costs of an appeal of an Ethics Commission decision that will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on April 27. She said she needs $12,600 to file a brief with the high court and to send two staff members to Washington, D.C., to argue the case.

In addition, Jenkins said the University of Virginia law school has been doing much of the case preparation for the commission for free. She estimated its donation at $750,000.

The commission found in a 2005 case that Sparks Councilman Mike Carrigan should not have voted on the Lazy 8 casino project. His campaign manager had been a consultant on the casino project.

The state Supreme Court reversed the Ethics Commission, which then appealed.

What the U.S. Supreme Court decides will "set the standard for the nation" on whether requiring officials to abstain from voting restricts their free speech rights, Jenkins said.

Last month Jenkins filed her candidacy for a vacant Family Court judge seat in Washoe County. She was not named as one of the finalists for the position.