A state investigation originally planned to culminate Wednesday in a full hearing and subpoenaed testimonies instead wrapped on a whisper.
The Nevada Commission on Ethics decided Wednesday to accept settlements from two Clark County School District officials accused of spending taxpayer money to campaign for a ballot question in 2012 to increase property taxes for school improvements.
In a unanimous vote and without debate, the commission found that Clark County School Board President Carolyn Edwards and Associate Superintendent and lobbyist Joyce Haldeman broke the state law prohibiting the use of public dollars to lobby for a campaign. However, the commission issued no discipline. It said both officials made a “single, unwillful violation” with the good intention of providing for Clark County students and coming away with no financial gain.
“There are a lot of challenges faced by public officials,” Commission Chairman Paul Lamboley said.
Edwards and Haldeman, not present Wednesday, were represented by their lawyers. The School Board hired law firm Hutchison & Steffen at a $330 hourly rate for Edwards. The district’s most current estimate puts Hutchison’s legal fees at $30,000. District lawyer Carlos McDade represented Haldeman.
Edwards’ actions date back to Oct. 20, 2012 when she directed a district employee to send an email blast seeking volunteers to “distribute door hangers and yard signs to registered voters encouraging them to support Question 2.”
In the 2012 election, the 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.
Haldeman used district resources to transport, store and disperse campaign materials supporting the passage of Question 2. She said the materials belonged to the School Improvement Committee, a political action committee created by four former Nevada first ladies to support the ballot question. After word got out that Haldeman was using district resources to help the PAC, she said the PAC would be billed $648 for those expenses. But the law states the government cannot incur an expense, reimbursed or not, in supporting the ballot question.
In the settlements, Edwards and Haldeman agreed they broke the law by spending taxpayer resources to campaign in these single instances but said they did it unknowingly, thinking they were within the letter of the law because of their lawyer’s advice. The commission agreed.
“In fact, the Ethics Commission stated that my actions were ‘a well-intentioned, good faith effort,’” Edwards said in a written statement Wednesday.
Haldeman also issued a written statement praising the settlement and noted that in her case, “There was no cost to the taxpayer, as all expenses were reimbursed.”
But it seems these pair of “single, unwillful violations” were just the beginning of something more, which only a hearing could have uncovered, said Martin Dean Dupalo, president of the Nevada Center for Public Ethics, a nonprofit that monitors the actions of Nevada politicians.
He pointed to evidence suggesting there was a campaign effort run out of Haldeman’s office at district headquarters. In Edwards’ email, she directed those interested in volunteering for support of the ballot question to contact the district’s Community and Government Relations office, headed by Haldeman, at 799-1080.
“The email raises more questions,” acknowledged Commissioner Tim Cory on Sept. 18 when the Commission decided to organize an investigatory hearing.
But the Commission that decided Sept. 18 to seek answers to those questions ended up backing down, asking nothing, said Dupalo, calling the settlement “light” on the two school officials.
Chairman Lamboley explained the reason for settlement Wednesday after the quick and unanimous votes.
“This is an important case,” Lamboley acknowledged. “But important cases don’t mean they have to go to a hearing” for justice to be served.
He argued it’s in the “best interest” of the district officials and the public to come to a resolution, costing taxpayers a lot less and teaching a lesson to Clark County school officials.
That lesson was more of a free pass, Dupalo said. As long as government officials claim they didn’t know and their lawyer said it was OK, they’re absolved, he said.
“I find that problematic,” said Dupalo, who wasn’t surprised based on the commission’s track record of settling.
Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at email@example.com or 702-383-0279.