The white light of scrutiny


This is Sunshine Week.

It's a week dedicated to talking about open government and freedom of information. Started in the Sunshine State of Florida in 2002 when that state's legislators tried to pass a bunch of exemptions to what had been probably the strongest public records law in the country, the effort has been picked up by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and made into a national event. Participants include newspapers, online media, civic groups, libraries, schools and people interested in the public's right to know.

Around here, every week is Sunshine Week.

Whether it is shady airport land deals, sealed court cases, contract attorneys billing the county for more than 24 hours of work on a single day, hepatitis outbreaks due to outpatient clinics, falsified documentation of work at Yucca Mountain, ballooning salaries of government workers and on and on -- the Review-Journal has been there in the thick of it, shining the white light of public scrutiny in dark shadows of corruption and greed.

This past week brought a new chapter in this never-ending saga when Clark County released a scathing audit of the agencies that enforce building and fire codes. The County Commission voted to conduct the audit after Review-Journal special projects reporter Joan Whitely revealed this past fall that inspectors had blithely dismissed out of hand allegations that major renovations at the Rio hotel had created potential fire and structural safety problems.

The 96-page Kessler Report -- written by Michael Kessler, a New York-based consultant -- revealed a department rife with a cavalier attitude about the job it was supposed to be doing. The report found a lack of internal controls, discarded records, falsified reports, favoritism and a general lack of concern or a sense of urgency on the part of building inspectors, who repeatedly told Kessler they were "not investigators."

When the report was released Wednesday, county management asked for an editorial board meeting to answer questions about the findings and to allay our suspicions that the county was reworking Kessler's original draft to soften the findings. They even gave us the original draft to show that rewriting was largely organizational and to fix minor misinformation.

At the table with our reporters and editors were County Manager Virginia Valentine; Jerry Carroll, the head of the county auditing division; Ron Lynn, the man in charge of building code enforcement; and several other staffers.

I looked down the table at Lynn and summed up the Kessler Report in three words: "No adult supervision."

I looked at Valentine and asked if she did not carry some measure of blame since she had personally met with the man who had brought the building code violations to the newspaper's attention. She said she was in the process of looking into the allegations and had met with someone from Harrah's, which owns the Rio, when our stories began appearing.

The meeting continued in that cordial vein with Lynn outlining a $4 million plan to prevent such malfeasance and nonfeasance from happening again by hiring a bunch of people to look over the shoulders of the inspectors.

The report we were handed listed no names. It merely referred to people as Building Inspector 9 or Contractor 1 or FD Inspector 13. I immediately said that was not adequate. These were people paid by the taxpayers to do a job to ensure safe buildings. We wanted the key that matched the jobs and the names. They brushed it off as a personnel matter.

After the meeting we pressed the issue. After the county conferred with the district attorney's office, we were given the key.

Buried in the report was a passing reference to an inspector who had been indicted in 1999 on 13 counts of falsifying inspection records for work performed at the Sands, Harrah's, Tropicana and Bally's.

When you look up the news stories from the case, we find all charges were dismissed after the man argued he was doing nothing more than following department policy and procedures. He claimed he was fired because he refused orders from his bosses to solicit contributions from those he inspected for a building officials organization's annual golf tournament. One of those bosses was Ron Lynn, who was later promoted to head the department by Valentine, a promotion the prior county manager refused to make.

As we sat in that meeting Wednesday, I could not help but recall what happened in 2004 when a single rogue New York Times reporter by the name of Jayson Blair was caught plagiarizing and fabricating news stories. Within weeks of his resignation, both the executive and the managing editors resigned.

The bottom line is, though, all the Sunshine in the world does no good if the voters and taxpayers do not take up cudgels against the illuminated vermin, cry out for accountability, demand indictments, insist that heads roll and vote the bums out.

 

Thomas Mitchell is the editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and access to public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@ reviewjournal.com.

 

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