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Nevada state senator steered federal grant to friend, complaint states

Updated May 15, 2023 - 4:43 pm

State Sen. Dina Neal is under investigation following claims she pressured a college professor to direct federal funds for local businesses into the pockets of unqualified companies, including one owned by her friend, records and emails show.

College of Southern Nevada business professor Kevin Raiford said he was ousted from the multimillion-dollar, tax-funded NV Grow grant program last year after he refused to award the money. Raiford said the funding is meant for companies that meet strict financial requirements.

“It’s like a bait-and-switch on the American public,” he said.

In complaints filed with CSN and state officials in October, Raiford alleged that Neal, D-North Las Vegas, repeatedly meddled in the program. The senator pushed him to give at least $20,000 to a clothing business owned by her friend, North Las Vegas police officer Donavan McIntosh, according to records Raiford provided to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The state denied the newspaper’s records request related to the complaint.

Neal wanted McIntosh to use the money to repay a loan she had given him to start his business, the complaint states. When Raiford refused, Neal began working with “CSN cabinet personnel” to oust him as the program’s director, according to Raiford’s complaint.

Neal, who works as a part-time instructor at both Nevada State College and CSN, said she had nothing to do with Raiford’s removal and called his complaint “libelous” and a “red herring.”

She referred all questions to CSN and the state’s legislative counsel. After this story ran online Thursday, she issued a statement through her attorney, Bradley Schrager, saying she acted appropriately.

“I have always conducted myself ethically, both as a legislator and as an educator, and this will be made crystal clear over time,” the statement said.

Raiford said he was abruptly fired in August from his job heading the program but remains a professor at the school. He filed a complaint with CSN in October, later bringing the allegations to state legislative officials after the college claimed it did not have the authority to launch an inquiry.

Courts have ruled that lawmakers are not subject to the state ethics commission but each chamber has an ethics committee.

It’s unclear if the investigator’s report has been submitted to the legislature, and staff and the investigator could not be reached for comment.

Raiford’s allegations, reported now for the first time by the Review-Journal, raise questions about the program’s operations since his sudden departure. The professor said he’s concerned that businesses have been left in limbo, unable to secure the money, bank loans and patents they need to operate.

“That’s hurtful to the community. It’s hurtful to these businesses,” Raiford said. “And it really hurts what Nevada could do going forward.”

Program helps businesses

Since its 2015 inception, NV Grow has counseled hundreds of small business owners, helping them secure loans and develop strategies to expand.

In 2021, the program broadened its mission and received $400,000 in federal money to directly fund businesses.

Neal also sponsored funding for NV Grow each time it came up in the biennial Legislature, and Raiford and his clients spoke to lawmakers about its success. A Senate bill Neal introduced last session allocated more state funds to the program.

Under Raiford, who has held executive positions at such companies as Hewlett-Packard and Whole Foods, NV Grow made an impact, records show.

During a Senate committee meeting in March 2021, CSN Vice President Clarissa Cota said Raiford “has been integral to the Program’s success,” according to the meeting minutes.

Through July 2022, the program helped Nevada companies secure more than $20 million in capital funds from loans, grants and investors and created 775 jobs, according to figures last calculated by Raiford.

As director, Raiford budgeted for and applied for competitive grants, both federal and private. He received a salary of $40,000 a year until officials removed him in August, but CSN still pays him around $76,000 as a tenured business professor.

Senator intervenes in grants

Raiford said Neal remained mostly hands off until 2021, when he secured just over $2 million in grants for the program.

She then began to intervene when it came to the money for businesses, reaching out directly about at least two companies, according to what Raiford said are emails and text messages between Neal, himself and CSN administrators.

“She’s not supposed to be involved,” Raiford said. “She was using her influence. This isn’t my bosses’ money, this is state and federal funding.”

In what Raiford said is a text message from June 30, 2021, Neal told Raiford she would be listening in on a phone call between him and McIntosh about his business.

“He wants me to be on. I will be quiet though,” she wrote.

Neal represents North Las Vegas. While McIntosh serves on the city’s police force, public records show he owns a home in Henderson, where he was registered to vote as recently as late 2020.

After Raiford held an in-person meeting with McIntosh, she followed up: “What happened? Are you giving him at least 20,000?”

Raiford said he eventually awarded McIntosh $6,000.

Neal testified last year during a deposition in a federal racial discrimination lawsuit McIntosh filed against North Las Vegas that she and McIntosh are friends.

An attorney presented Neal’s phone records showing she and McIntosh exchanged about 8,000 calls and texts over the past three years, which averages to about seven a day.

Friends for five years

The two met in 2017 and she did favors for him, both big and small, including advising him about his work as a police officer, helping him with identity theft issues, and bringing him soup after his neck surgery, she said in the deposition.

She hired McIntosh as a personal trainer for her father, the late state Sen. Joe Neal, according to federal court records.

Neal testified that McIntosh regularly reached out to her with many issues over the years.

“I prayed for him,” she said.

She reached out to the Nevada Equal Rights Commission on his behalf after he filed his employment complaint against the city, records show.

She also said in the court records that she worked to secure an apartment for his daughter, who in 2018 was homeless and pregnant with her second child.

McIntosh’s daughter was later denied the apartment due to a prostitution charge that Neal was unaware of, she testified.

“I was (mad) that, as a police officer, that he didn’t know that she had a prostitution charge,” she said in the deposition. “I literally just got slammed and I put my reputation on the line to get her into an apartment and she got denied.”

When reached by phone, McIntosh said Neal may have mentioned NV Grow to him, but when asked if she had loaned him money for his business, he laughed. “No, what type of question is that?”

When asked whether she was on the phone during his meetings with Raiford, he hung up. He did not return a subsequent phone call.

Neal emails Raiford’s boss

Raiford provided an email chain from the following year that he said shows Neal continued to interfere with NV Grow when she reached out about another business that Raiford said did not qualify for the grant money.

On March 4, 2022, Neal emailed Cota, Raiford’s boss and vice president of CSN’s North Las Vegas campus, according to the records Raiford provided.

“Hello, So I wanted to follow up on the meeting about Raiford. What was the end result?” she wrote.

Cota responded that administrators were discussing the recommendations for the program’s oversight and asked to set up a meeting with Neal, the document shows.

“The restructuring would allow for NV Grow to build upon its success and move in the direction you have expressed you wish to see,” Cota wrote.

When reached for comment, Cota referred a reporter to CSN’s spokesman. CSN President Federico Zaragoza declined to answer any questions.

“Per (Nevada System of Higher Education) Code, I’m not authorized to comment on any HR-related matters,” he said.

Spending questions

Raiford has questions about how the grant money is being spent.

He said that while director, he put invoices through to purchase materials for the needs of the program, but they were blocked.

He continues to receive emails from businesses seeking help, and a NV Grow brochure sent out earlier this month still lists his name and contact information on it.

Raiford said his firing came after CSN faculty union attorney Nate Ring sent a demand letter in August. Raiford and his staff were working without pay, even though their wages were covered by grants, according to the letter.

“The public trust has been put into your hands by way of taxpayer monies funding the various grants,” Ring wrote. “It is inequitable and unconscionable for CSN to continue to accept grant funds from donors for the work of Mr. Raiford and his Nevada Grow team but refuse to compensate them. To continue to do so violates the law and must be stopped.”

Raiford was removed as director the next day, according to an email he provided to the Review-Journal.

On Oct. 12, he received a written reprimand, stating he “became aggressive and non-professional” toward Zaragoza during an August discussion about the staff’s withheld pay.

Raiford denies this.

Since his departure, at least four staff members are no longer with NV Grow.

Jonathan Santos, CEO of the Santos Studios and a former student of Raiford, said he has had little involvement but is still listed as a counselor on the NV Grow website.

“The people involved are great people,” he said. “I just feel like it doesn’t have the same spirit it used to have and the same drive to bring in real tools to the businesses.”

Banker John Gentile resigned from the program last year.

In an email to CSN officials Oct. 3, he stated that he still had not been paid for two months of work and was concerned the grant program’s objectives would not be fulfilled.

He wrote: “It’s an absolute shame because the small businesses within our community are the ones hurt by all this nonsense that could have been totally avoided.”

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @ByBrianaE on Twitter. Erickson is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing.

This story was updated to reflect that the state denied the Review-Journal’s records request related to the investigation. A previous version of this story misstated the process for disciplining a sitting member of the Nevada Legislature. Under the state constitution, each house is responsible for disciplining members.

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