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Deputy Clark County manager on leave related to son’s employment

A deputy Clark County manager has been on paid leave for nearly two months while officials investigate whether he improperly intervened in his son’s employment discipline case, records and interviews show.

Jeff Wells — who last year was the focus of a Las Vegas Review-Journal investigation questioning his supervision of various departments — was placed on leave in January, but the leave was expected to last only two weeks, according to an email from County Manager Kevin Schiller.

Wells’ son, Tom, was hired by the public defender’s office as a mortgage fraud investigator in 2012, and Nicole Wells, his daughter-in-law, was hired by the Department of Family Services in 2013. Both departments were under Jeff Wells at the time.

In 2018, allegations surfaced that Jeff Wells was protecting then-Public Defender Phil Kohn, who hired Tom Wells, from sexual harassment allegations. The county determined the allegation was not substantiated.

State law makes it a gross misdemeanor for elected or appointed officials to hire relatives, but Jeff Wells disputes that the law would have applied to the hiring of his son and daughter-in-law. The statute of limitations for gross misdemeanors in Nevada is two years.

In January, Tom Wells was disciplined for an employment issue, Jeff Wells wrote in an email exchange with the Review-Journal last week. He did not specify the nature of the accusation against his son.

“I had no conversations with anyone prior to the issuance of this discipline,” he wrote. “One week later I asked the County Attorney if I could speak with her about the case, she agreed and we had a short conversation in her office. The next day she called me for a (one) minute conversation to follow-up on an issue she was checking on. Subsequently, other members of senior management determined that this conversation should not have occurred, even though the conversation was perceived as permissible by the County Attorney and I at the time of the conversation.”

Tom Wells’ employment at the county ended Feb. 21, records show. But county officials would not say whether he quit or was fired and declined to provide an interview with Schiller while the county is “engaged in an ongoing HR process” about Jeff Wells.

It “would be inappropriate at this time for Clark County to discuss the issues you are raising,” spokeswoman Jennifer Cooper wrote in an email. “We hope to be able to have conversations with you at some point.”

Jeff Wells, 74, is one of the county’s highest-paid employees.

He oversaw the coroner’s office, the public defender’s office and the Henderson constable’s office when the departments faced allegations of harassment, corruption or other serious misconduct.

Review-Journal investigations found that he did not immediately address problems in those departments as well as employee concerns at the public administrator’s office.

Former Public Administrator Robert Telles was accused of killing Review-Journal investigative reporter Jeff German in what police said was retaliation for unfavorable articles German wrote about Telles last year.

Wells’ email to the newspaper also said that he informed staff after Thanksgiving that he planned to retire in early April. Wells made $325,000 in pay and benefits in 2021, according to Transparent Nevada and county data.

Tom and Nicole Wells did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.

Jeff Wells, one of three deputy managers listed on the county’s website, went on leave in mid-January, according to a Schiller email obtained through a public records request.

“Jeff Wells will be out of the office on leave for approximately the next two weeks,” Schiller wrote top staff on Jan. 23. “While he is out, he is not expected to conduct County business. As a result please direct any needed inquiries or communication that would otherwise go to Jeff through myself and the Senior team.”

Jeff Wells, in subsequent emails to the Review-Journal, said it is unclear if the state law prohibiting hiring relatives would have applied to his son and daughter-in-law because the law has conflicting definitions of appointed officer, and county attorneys concluded the provision did not apply when a subordinate made the hiring decision.

“This ambiguity was resolved a couple of years ago when the County adopted its own Ordinance that incorporated some of the provisions of NRS 281 as well as other statutes,” he wrote. “This new Ordinance clearly applies to county elected officials, department heads and senior staff. The Ordinance also grandfathered in all employees hired prior to its adoption.”

County job concerns

Tom Wells was hired in 2012 as an investigator for mortgage fraud and financial crimes at the public defender’s office to help defend suspects the attorney general was prosecuting after the 2007 real estate collapse, said Kohn, who ran the office at the time.

“Did Jeff introduce me to his son? Yeah,” Kohn said in a phone interview with the Review-Journal last month.

But Kohn said he did not feel pressure to hire Tom Wells just because Jeff Wells was his boss.

“I know the optics,” Kohn said. “At the time (Tom Wells) was as qualified as anyone who came through.”

Kohn said that the job was new and there were not many candidates, so Tom Wells’ prior work at a bank as a mortgage broker gave him the background to do the job.

After a couple of years, Tom Wells went to law school and was rehired as a deputy public defender in 2017, records show.

Tom Wells made $57,000 the first full year he worked at the county but made $95,000 last year. Including benefits, his total compensation was more than $120,000, county records and TransparentNevada show.

Don Burnette, who was county manager when Tom Wells was hired, remembered calling Kohn to make sure Jeff Wells wasn’t applying pressure to hire his son.

“I was asking if it was his decision and wanted to confirm he wasn’t influenced in making that decision,” Burnette told the Review-Journal on Feb. 28. “The other message that came from me is, ‘Treat Tom like every other employee, and if something came up to warrant some sort of action, let me know.’”

Harassment allegations

Employees accused Kohn of sexual harassment, according to an investigation released in 2018. The employees told the law firm the county hired to investigate the matter that Kohn “feels he is untouchable because of his close relationship with his supervising assistant county manager.” That manager was Jeff Wells.

The county said allegations that Jeff Wells protected Kohn were not substantiated, but then-County Manager Yolanda King moved oversight of the public defender’s office from Jeff Wells to Schiller in 2018, records show.

Kohn said he never harassed anyone but was accused of not responding to harassment from another employee.

“A lawyer in the public defender’s office said things completely inappropriate to two women,” he said, adding he could not address the allegations at the time because of the ongoing investigation. “The day it happened I called HR. I wanted an investigation.”

Kohn insisted that Jeff Wells did not protect him “in any way.”

But at the time, King said Kohn was disciplined in the case that included actions by him and senior staff, but she would not reveal the punishment. Kohn retired in 2019.

Jeff Wells also oversaw Clark County’s child welfare agency a decade ago when employees signed a petition calling for improvements in caseload and unsafe conditions.

The agency’s oversight was transferred to Schiller, who is now county manager, in 2017.

Jeff Wells’ daughter-in-law was hired at the Social Services Department in 2013, when he supervised that agency. She was promoted in 2018, under Schiller, to a senior family services specialist and remains in that position, records show.

The county refused to provide the names and resumes of people who also applied for the jobs for which the county hired Tom and Nicole Wells, citing a court ruling and administrative rules. Review-Journal Chief Legal Officer Benjamin Zensen Lipman sent an email Tuesday to the county saying it was not interpreting records laws properly.

Jeff Wells has been at the county for more than a decade. He previously served in the Colorado state Senate and was director of the Department of Labor and the Department of Personnel and Administration in Colorado.

Contact Arthur Kane at akane@reviewjournal.com and follow @ArthurMKane on Twitter. Kane is editor of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing.

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