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Metro corruption detectives question figures in Mesquite mailer controversy

Updated October 25, 2021 - 8:52 pm

Detectives who investigate public corruption for the state’s largest police department have questioned witnesses about a series of controversial political mailers distributed by Mesquite officials during last year’s mayoral election.

But the investigation has been “stalled,” according to the witnesses. In an email on Thursday, the Metropolitan Police Department confirmed that an investigation was not active but did not release further details.

One witness, who was granted anonymity to prevent retaliation against him, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “One of the detectives approached me a couple of weeks ago to give me an update. Part of the update involved the fact that forces outside his control were stalling the investigation. I decided at that point to contact the RJ to get the story out because it is vitally important to the community that the investigation continues.”

The political mailers, which urged the re-election of Mayor Allen Litman, included details of an alleged sexual assault that involved a then-16-year-old girl. Though the letters did not name the accuser, Kylee Tobler, the information disclosed about the case ultimately led to her identification throughout the community. Tobler’s experience, as well as the actions of those involved in the distribution of the mailers, was detailed in a Review-Journal story in August.

Within weeks of the story’s publication, at least two witnesses were contacted by Metro detectives who work under the umbrella of the agency’s criminal intelligence section. The unit investigates public corruption throughout Clark County, including the cases of a disgraced former Henderson constable who was convicted of fraud in 2019 and a $1.3 million bribery scheme that involved a former chief hydrologist for the Virgin Valley Water District in Mesquite.

In reaction to news of Metro’s investigation, Tobler told the Review-Journal on Thursday, “I just want to reiterate that other victims are watching all of this unfold and, time after time, are being shut down, silenced and told to just move on. We deserve someone in a position of power to stand up for us. Metro is in a position to help set a standard in respecting victims and their stories.”

The investigation’s focus

The witnesses said the detectives’ questions focused on whether city and police officials “broke anti-corruption laws” during the election, in which Mesquite’s longtime mayor faced a challenge from then-City Attorney Bob Sweetin.

On Thursday night, Litman told the Review-Journal in an email, “I know nothing about this.”

In the mailers, sent on Mesquite Police Officers Association letterhead, union officials outlined the case involving Tobler, which they believed Sweetin had wrongly prosecuted years earlier. Emails previously obtained by the Review-Journal showed that a draft of one of the letters was sent to Mesquite police Chief Maquade Chesley, who then forwarded the draft to Councilman George Gault for his review.

A third-party investigation later found that city resources were used in the creation and editing of the mailers. Those resources included on-the-job knowledge police had obtained through their work for the city.

Retired journalist Barbara Ellestad, publisher of the now-shuttered Mesquite Citizen Journal, is among those who have been interviewed about the political mailers.

On the afternoon of Aug. 17, Ellestad said, two detectives reached out to her, asking if she would be willing to help them “figure out the spider web of information” surrounding the election and the mailers.

“The story you did, they say that’s where they got the idea to look into this,” Ellestad told a Review-Journal reporter on Thursday, emphasizing that they had contacted her first. “I didn’t reach out to them.”

She spoke with the detectives for a couple of hours at her Mesquite home two days later and again on Sept. 1 over the phone, according to phone and email records she saved.

One of few reporters covering Mesquite full time during last year’s election, Ellestad had a front-row seat to the immediate effects of the mailers, much of which played out publicly in Mesquite City Council meetings and on social media. After covering the city for nearly 15 years, Ellestad ceased publication earlier this year, citing threats she blamed on the police union.

“They were interested in the union’s activities in last year’s election,” she said of the detectives. “We spent a lot of time on that.”

Ellestad said on Thursday that she, too, received an update from the detectives indicating that the investigation had been “stalled.”

‘Extremely interested’

The detectives also asked whether Ellestad had seen a copy of the investigative report into the mailers, which had been conducted and prepared by law firm Fennemore Craig.

“They were extremely interested in that,” she said.

Mesquite city officials have repeatedly refused to release a copy of the investigation’s findings to the Review-Journal, despite the city manager at the time reading large portions of the report in a City Council meeting.

In that same meeting, Councilman Brian Wursten said: “What the Police Department has established at this point is that if you run for office, and they do not like you, they will use city resources to come after you.”

The detectives again brought up the investigative report during their conversation with the witness whose name is being withheld. His interview took place in late August, he said, and centered around questions about “whether the police planned to benefit financially and were promised anything in return for their endorsement, like raises, more resources.”

Neither he nor Ellestad was aware of how many others may have been interviewed.

In addition to Metro’s inquiries, the Review-Journal’s story prompted a founding member of Mesquite Works, a nonprofit, to resign. The founding member, Kimberly Woolsey, sat on the board with Gault, who, records show, had reviewed at least one of the letters before its distribution to Mesquite residents last year.

“After recent events and statements by my colleague, I have no choice but to resign immediately,” Woolsey announced on Facebook within hours of the story posting. “I simply wouldn’t be able to look my daughter in the eye or myself in the mirror otherwise.”

Contact Rio Lacanlale at rlacanlale@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter.

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