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Two county commissioners entangled with bitter civil lawsuit

Two county commissioners have been thrust into a bitter legal battle worth tens of millions of dollars between former Republican state Sen. Mark James and his ex-friend Stephen Kalish.

The case stems from a soured business relationship between James and Kalish involving Frias Holding Co., a transportation company run by James. Sensational allegations have surfaced during the legal sparring that James, a former county commissioner who is married with children, had extensive relationships with escorts.

Within the past week, Commissioners Steve Sisolak and Chris Giunchigliani, both Democrats, have weighed in on opposite sides.

Sisolak submitted a sworn affidavit for James alleging that Kalish, who once ran Republic Services, told him in three separate conversations in the past year that he was out to destroy James’ reputation.

The last conversation occurred late in 2011 during a face-to-face meeting Kalish had set up to give Sisolak a campaign contribution from a client, according to Sisolak’s affidavit.

“For the third time, he told me he wanted to ruin Mr. James, embarrass his family and make things as difficult as possible for his wife and children,” Sisolak wrote. “Mr. Kalish further stated that he planned to have ‘hookers’ testify at trial against Mr. James in order to embarrass him and his family.”

But Giunchigliani contended in her own sworn affidavit on Kalish’s behalf that Kalish never made such threats in her conversations with him.

“That is inconsistent with my discussions with Mr. Kalish, where he has expressed his disappointment in having to resort to the courts against someone he considered a friend,” she wrote. “At no point in time has Mr. Kalish ever stated or insinuated that he intended to go after Mr. James’ wife or his children. Nor has he said anything inappropriate relative to Mr. James.”

Giunchigliani also suggested that Sisolak might be motivated to support James’ side in the litigation because he was upset with Kalish, who opposed Sisolak’s failed bid to pass ordinances that would have changed the business relationship between towing companies and the Metropolitan Police Department.

“Commissioner Sisolak has made known his displeasure over the defeat of his proposed ordinances and his dissatisfaction with those who opposed them,” said Giunchigliani, who added that she did not think the ordinances were in the public’s best interest.

Sisolak’s affidavit was submitted as part of an effort by James to keep out as evidence in the case pages of escort websites containing phone numbers Kalish alleges showed up on James’ phone records.

District Judge Mark Denton held a brief hearing on the subject Monday but said he would issue an opinion later.

Attorney John Naylor, who represents James, accused the Kalish camp of trying to turn a “simple contract case” into one about “sex and drugs.”

But Kalish lawyer Todd Bice said exposing the darker side of James’ life is part of proving the case that James still owes Kalish a lot of money.

Kalish filed a lawsuit against James in December 2009, accusing him of breaching their business arrangement at Frias Holding, which operates cab and limousine companies. James countersued Kalish, leveling defamation allegations.

James ended up paying Kalish more than $3.5 million for helping him run the company as a consultant. But Kalish contends he is owed tens of millions more that James refused to pay after James received a large stock interest in Frias Holding.

Kalish has alleged that he had to take the reins of the company for a period of time while James was in regular contact with escorts.

Denton refused to allow Kalish’s attorneys to question Sisolak in court Monday. They had subpoenaed him late Friday.

Bice and James Pisanelli wanted to ask Sisolak about $50,000 in campaign contributions he received in the past year from the James-Frias camp.

In court papers, Bice and Pisanelli said records show that days before Sisolak signed the affidavit, Sisolak received a $5,000 check from another James lawyer, Dominic Gentile.

“How refreshing it is to see that one of James’ own attorneys has suddenly developed a keen interest in Commissioner Sisolak’s re-election efforts with a large contribution at precisely the same time he is submitting an affidavit in support of James,” the lawyers said.

Gentile, however, brushed aside the criticism, saying he has known Sisolak since the 1980s and has also represented him.

“He’s an effective commissioner, and I’m proud to be able to participate in the system with a guy who has this kind of character,” Gentile said.

Sisolak said after the hearing that neither the campaign contributions nor his failed bid to change the county towing contract played a role in his decision to help James.

Sisolak said he decided to step forward after his experiences with false information coming to light about him in his public war of words with former girlfriend, Kathleen Vermillion.

“It was very hard for my kids to see their father accused of that stuff,” he said. “I thought it was important to speak up after Steve told me he was going to do that to Mark’s children.”

Giunchigliani said lawyers for Kalish simply asked her to convey her conversations with Kalish about James, and that is what she did in her affidavit.

She said she works well with Sisolak and doesn’t expect this experience to affect their relationship on the County Commission.

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

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