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Former water officials accused in bribery scheme plead not guilty

Two former water officials pleaded not guilty in District Court on Tuesday in a $1.3 million bribery scheme.

District Judge Abbi Silver held off setting a trial date for Robert Coache and Michael E. Johnson until a possible conflict-of-interest issue is resolved by one of the defense lawyers. She set a June 28 hearing on the matter.

Both Coache, 52, and Johnson, 51, who are free on $250,000 bail, declined to comment after their arraignment.

Coache, a retired deputy state engineer with the Nevada Division of Water Resources, and Johnson, a former chief hydrologist for the Virgin Valley Water District, are charged in a 50-count indictment with taking bribe money to help a wealthy Bunkerville landowner sell water rights.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority bought the Virgin River rights from John Lonetti Jr. for $8.4 million. Lonetti, 77, who was interviewed by detectives, has not been charged in the case.

Coache and Johnson also are accused of laundering the money they received from Lonetti through a series of transactions, including the purchase of several homes.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported last week that police obtained a rare court order to seize two of the homes.

Detectives have not physically taken possession of the homes or evicted its residents, but they have filed the seizure documents in District Court and with the Clark County recorder. Prosecutors think the filings will act as liens and prevent the owners from selling the properties.

Coache and Johnson are accused of carrying out the bribery scheme between Jan. 1, 2006, and May 21, 2008, while both men had their public jobs. They continued to launder the proceeds of the bribe until Sept. 13, the indictment alleged.

Coache retired from his state job in May 2010, and Johnson resigned under fire from the Virgin Valley Water District in August.

Contact Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-8135.

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