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Nevada regents use NSHE funds to wine, dine at swanky eateries

In June 2017, Nevada Regent Cathy McAdoo organized a meal in her hometown of Elko for the retiring president of Great Basin College that included 13 people with wine, beer and liquor. Nevada System of Higher Education funds paid $486 for dinner and drinks.

The meal was apparently so good that, three months later, when the regents held their quarterly meeting in Elko, the same restaurant catered the event. The agency spent $10,102, records show.

The restaurant’s name was McAdoo’s, and it is owned by the regent’s son and daughter-in-law.

After hosting the retirement dinner, McAdoo wrote an email stressing she had no financial interest in the restaurant but failed to note the close family ownership, records show.

McAdoo told the Review-Journal that retiring Great Basin President Mark Curtis picked McAdoo’s for his retirement dinner, and she had nothing to do with the catering for the September 2017 meeting.

“I guess I say it’s a coincidence,” she said in a phone interview. “There are no ethical concerns about it.”

Curtis could not be reached for comment.

But Robert Fellner, policy director of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, questioned public money going to the child of a regent.

“All money in possession of the university — no matter the source — ultimately should be going to providing the best education as cheaply as possible to students,” Fellner said.

A Review-Journal investigation of four years of NSHE spending shows regents using their $2,500 annual “hosting accounts” for dinners with family and friends, pricey meals that have little or no business justification and tens of thousands of additional NSHE money spent a year on catering, celebrations and going away dinners.

The spending is just a small part of the NSHE’s $9.3 million annual budget that comes from the state general fund, campus payments, investment and endowment money and reserves. Regents are paid $80 a meeting plus travel expenses.

McAdoo’s

NSHE staff contend that catering options in Elko are limited and that McAdoo’s was chosen after another restaurant said it could only cater lunch and higher education staff felt Great Basin College’s restaurant staffing was too small to cater the event.

For the September 2017 two-day meeting that had about 100 attendees, McAdoo’s restaurant produced more than $1,500 worth of breakfast boxes, a $2,600 buffet lunch, afternoon snacks and another $2,000 in lunch boxes, records show. Gratuity alone was $1,531.

McAdoo’s and another restaurant were suggested by an assistant to Great Basin’s president, emails show. The assistant, Mardell Wilkins, wrote in an email to the Review-Journal that she was aware that the restaurant was owned by Regent McAdoo’s son but that catering options are so limited in Elko that staff couldn’t find another company to provide food. The other restaurant that staff suggested did not respond to calls seeking comment.

The NSHE’s nepotism policy focuses mostly on hiring and supervising relatives and does not address using the restaurant of a Regent’s son for meals. The policy also says: “each NSHE institution should avoid any appearance of impropriety as well as any potential conflict of interest.”

McAdoo said she didn’t know why she failed to mention her family connection to the restaurant in the email that noted she received no financial benefit from the establishment. McAdoo’s owner did not respond to calls seeking comment.

NSHE staff would not discuss the spending, but emailed a statement.

“All hosting expenditures from the members of the Board of Regents comply with the limits on the use of public funds set forth in Nevada law (NRS 396.070),” said Dean J. Gould, chief of staff and special counsel to the Board of Regents, in the written statement. “All catering expenses for Board meetings reflect the cost of serving breakfast and lunch to a large number of attendees, which can exceed 100 people each day for a two-day meeting.”

The NSHE spends about $10,000 catering the regents’ quarterly two-day meetings and a few hundred dollars for smaller meetings, records show. In the 2018 fiscal year, the NSHE spent $46,607 catering meetings. The estimate for catering this fiscal year is more than $57,000, which is enough to pay the annual tuition of nearly nine in-state undergraduates, records show.

Receipts for some meals that regents paid out of their hosting accounts also showed tenuous business reasons for the expenses.

Nobu and Momofuku

Last year, Regent John T. Moran had four dinners at high-end Las Vegas restaurants. None of them cost less than $300. Three of the pricey meals included Moran and only one other person. None had any justification or business purpose filed with the receipts.

When asked repeatedly the business purpose of the meals, Moran said: “The law is pretty specific that I can spend up to $2,500 and I stayed within my limits. The spending had a business-related purpose to advance higher education.”

Two times, Moran took campaign donors to expensive meals despite state law saying hosting accounts “must not be used to pay for expenses associated with … a political fund raising event.”

Moran’s dining companions could not recall the meals’ business purposes.

On Sept. 29, 2018, Moran went to T-Bones Chophouse at Red Rock Resort with his wife and another couple, Ruth Tekabe and Las Vegas dentist Endalkachew Mersha. Mersha had donated a total of $3,000 in 2015 and 2016 to Moran for his run for regent, records show.

The couples spent $81 on liquor and corkage fees for two bottles they apparently brought with them, ordered steaks and scallops costing about $50 each and had crab, ice cream and cheesecake, receipts show. The total was $500 with tip.

Mersha didn’t return calls seeking comment, but Tekabe, who owns several businesses with Mersha, drew a blank about the dinner.

“We always try to help everyone out with campaign (finance) and with everything,” Tekabe said when asked if Moran requested campaign support at the meal. “I can’t remember which one (this dinner was).”

On June 25, 2018, Moran took Nancy B. Rapoport, a professor at UNLV’s Boyd Law School, to Nobu, spending $327 on drinks and sushi, records show. She also could not remember the exact reason for the pricey meal.

“We just went through a variety of UNLV topics, as I was stepping back to faculty soon,” Rapoport wrote in an email exchange with the Review-Journal. “I can’t remember the details.”

Seven weeks later, Moran was at Momofuku, the Vegas outlet of the renowned New York restaurant, with Stowe Shoemaker, dean of the UNLV William F. Harrah College of Hospitality. They spent $312 on alcohol and food, records show. Beer, vodka and a whole branzino fish at the cost of $68 were on the menu for the meal. Shoemaker did not return calls and emails seeking comment.

Business reason

Even when there was an apparently legitimate business purpose, Moran, who was a former chairman of the Nevada Commission on Ethics, initially had trouble articulating it.

On Dec. 15, Moran had dinner with Scott Sibley of Nevada Legal News at T-Bones that cost $436, including nearly $60 in alcohol, records show.

Sibley remembered it well, saying he was upset that UNLV did not honor some basketball tickets he purchased at a charity fundraiser. Moran, to whom Sibley contributed $1,000 three years earlier, was sent out to smooth over hurt feelings in the hope Sibley would support UNLV’s business school financially.

“I’m a fairly big donor,” Sibley told the Review-Journal, citing million-dollar-plus donations to other institutions. “If they can’t honor four basketball tickets, I’m not going to help the university.”

Moran called back after the Review-Journal’s interview with Sibley, saying as a lawyer he is inclined not to talk about private meetings and confirming he was trying to help the university re-establish the relationship.

When asked about the Mersha dinner, Moran noted that UNLV has a dental school and then said he had people waiting for him. He could not be reached later to discuss the dinner.

The Palm

Kevin Page, chairman of the Board of Regents, likes to frequent the Palm Restaurant in the Forum Shops at Caesars. He never provides the details of what was ordered — submitting just the credit card receipts for reimbursement — and uses the boilerplate “To discuss Regent business” as justification.

State law says the hosting account each of the 13 regents receives must be directly related to “duties of the member of the Board of Regents.”

But two pricey meals included the regent’s brother, Paul Page, a former Metropolitan Police Department lieutenant who was accused of misappropriating about $40,000 in police union funds after a union examination in 2011. Charges were not filed.

A $291 meal on Dec. 9, 2015, included the Page brothers and City Councilman Stavros Anthony.

Less than six months later, the brothers were at the Palm again with Municipal Judge George Assad, who failed in a re-election bid after exhibiting unusual behavior like detaining the girlfriend of a man who failed to pay traffic tickets, records show. That action prompted a Commission on Judicial Discipline reprimand. The meal with Kevin and Paul Page cost $237.

Assad also joined Page and Regent Rick Trachok at Panevino restaurant in June 2015, spending $234. Paul Page didn’t attend that meal. Assad did not return calls seeking comment about the dinners.

Anthony, a retired Metro police captain and former regent, said he and the Page brothers discussed consolidating the police departments of all the higher education institutions.

“He wanted to pick my brain — I have a Ph.D. from UNLV — about what I thought of that and whether it was it a good idea,” Anthony said. “Kevin invited (Paul) along as part of dialogue and the three of us talked about it.”

Paul Page said the dinner with Anthony was to discuss police consolidation.

“It did save a lot of money, but up north they were opposed to it,” he said. “It made sense to go ahead and do it.”

Kevin Page wrote in the justification that it was to “discuss Regent business” but in a follow-up email to staff who were asking for more information, he wrote that the dinner was about “police consolidation.”

Paul Page did not remember what the dinner with Assad was about other than it was about law enforcement as the former judge was also prosecutor.

Kevin Page, who used $1,425 in NSHE money to purchase a space gray 256GB iPhone X, said he couldn’t talk, citing a family illness. He did not respond to subsequent attempts to obtain comment.

Lago

Regent Jason Geddes went to dinner with his wife, son and two other couples to Lago at the Bellagio on Dec. 2, 2015, spending nearly $320.

The event was justified in reimbursement records as a discussion of “NSHE and (Nevada State College) initiatives,” but Geddes told the Review-Journal that was an error by an assistant.

He concedes one couple were friends from UNLV and the other couple were their friends. He talked to them about possibly attending Nevada State College while ordering tequila, wine, a beer and some snacks.

“Two of them were interested in going into the programs and wanted to learn more about it,” Geddes said.

Geddes said he rarely uses the hosting money for meals.

“It is acceptable to take people out to dinner and discuss system business,” he said. “We didn’t spend that much for seven people. If you look at my spending, I’m pretty cautious.”

Fellner said NSHE should review whether hosting accounts, which are delineated in state law, are necessary, considering many of the examples the Review-Journal found raise questions.

“It seems pretty clear the hosting account (can be) an excuse to go out to nice, really fancy expensive restaurants with friends,” he said.

Contact Arthur Kane at akane@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ArthurMKane on Twitter.

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