ACLU demands rules on prosecutors paying witnesses’ rent

The head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada called on the state attorney general Tuesday to establish guidelines on how prosecution-run victim funds should be used, in lieu of an outright investigation into the practice.

Public records analyzed by the Las Vegas Review-Journal show the Clark County district attorney’s office has been paying bills for witnesses, in some cases shelling out more than $1,000 to help a crime victim make ends meet, for nearly a decade.

Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto’s office has not received a request from a government agency to write an opinion, spokeswoman Beatriz Aguirre said Tuesday. The office said earlier that questions about a county fund should be addressed in a county audit.

But that doesn’t cut it for the ACLU.

“I think that the county is too close to this issue to actually engage in an investigation that would show exactly what has transpired here,” Tod Story, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, said on KNPR. “If the attorney general is unwilling to launch an investigation, she should at least minimally issue an opinion for the entire state so every county will know what is and isn’t allowable under her opinion.”

Nevada law requires the attorney general to give a written opinion when requested “to the governor, the secretary of state, the state controller, the state treasurer, the director of the department of corrections, to the head of any state department, agency, board or commission, to any district attorney and to any city attorney of any incorporated city within the State of Nevada, upon any question of law relating to their respective offices, departments, agencies, boards or commissions.”

The ACLU of Nevada called for the attorney general to probe the practice last week in light of a Review-Journal investigation that showed the DA’s office authorized payments in 68 different instances from a checking account maintained by its Victim/Witness Assistance Center from December 2004 up to now.

The district attorney’s office says its numbers show there were a total of 56 Victim/Witness payments. Of those, 49 were for rent relocation assistance, and seven fell into the “other” category.

Several Las Vegas defense attorneys said they were not told about the practice during the discovery process for people they represented.

Payments usually were made in cases that never went to trial.

The DA’s Victim/Witness Assistance Center coordinates witness travel, updates victims on case statuses and refers victims to outside help. The district attorney’s office redacted case numbers and other information, so it’s unclear how many different cases are linked to the payments.

District Attorney Steve Wolfson, who has been in office since 2012, has contended that the rare payments are authorized by state law. But he also said the practice is under review.

Nevada Revised Statute 4.3755 allows money collected for restitution to go into a fund for “victims of crime created by the office of the district attorney of the county in which the court is located.”

The payments are rare in Clark County considering the caseload the district attorney handles, which averages about 65,000 cases a year.

The Review-Journal has found one instance when a payment was disclosed during testimony.

Assistance typically comes in the form of a one-time check payment to a landlord, according to the DA’s office. The Review-Journal’s findings reflected that.

Contact Bethany Barnes at bbarnes@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Find her on Twitter: @betsbarnes.