Clark County’s new administrator of human services may have violated a state ethics law when he quit the county two years ago to work for a software company he recommended for a no-bid contract, the Review-Journal has found.
Tim Burch was the director of the Department of Family Services in March 2016 when he and then-Chief Administrative Officer Sabra Smith Newby recommended that the county approve a contract with SPIRIT Inc. to develop software to match foster families with county wards.
The approved contract paid SPIRIT $180,000 to develop and deploy the system, as well as to train staff and cover an initial licensing fee. It required the county to pay an additional $75,000 a year in licensing costs to use the system, which it still does.
Burch, along with an assistant county manager and the county’s purchasing and contracts manager, had signed a form that made SPIRIT eligible to obtain the contract without competition from other companies.
Four months later, Burch resigned from the county to become the chief executive officer of SPIRIT in Orlando, Florida.
A state ethics law prohibits public officials from working for a private company for at least one year if the official had “influence” over awarding that business a contract. The law only applies to contracts worth more than $25,000 awarded in the year before the official left the government.
The Nevada Commission on Ethics determines violations of the law. If the commission were to find that Burch committed a “willful violation,” he could face a maximum fine of $5,000 for the first infraction as well as administrative sanctions, such as a reprimand. The commission also can find that an official did not intentionally break the law, in which case it may not level a fine but could impose other administrative penalties.
A government official does not have to act with malice or reckless disregard in order for a violation to be considered “willful.” The commission simply has to find that the official acted deliberately.
Burch said in a phone interview Tuesday that he was not aware of the ethics law and didn’t know about it when he took the job at SPIRIT.
“I thought I handled things through the appropriate process and procedures,” he said.
The Nevada Commission on Ethics this week could not confirm or deny receiving any complaints about Burch, citing a state law that prohibits it from acknowledging complaints unless they have been investigated and presented to an internal review panel.
Yvonne M. Nevarez-Goodson, the commission’s executive director, said the state ethics law requires a “cooling off” period before officials can take jobs with government contractors in order to prevent conflicts of interest.
“Effectively, ‘cooling-off’ provisions were enacted by the Legislature to protect the public against actual or perceived revolving-door, pay-to-play or quid pro quo scenarios in which the private sector may improperly influence government actors through promises or perceptions of lucrative job opportunities in the private sector for official action taken in the interest of the private entity,” Nevarez-Goodson said in an email.
Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak said he was familiar with the law but did not know that Burch had left the county for SPIRIT.
“It’s obviously a problem,” he said.
Sisolak did not know why county officials were not aware of the law. He said he would raise the issue with lawyers in the Clark County District Attorney’s civil division.
County spokesman Erik Pappa said Tuesday he was unaware of the ethics law, but that the county would look into it further. On Thursday afternoon, Pappa said Burch plans to seek an opinion from the ethics commission advising him on whether his circumstance represents a conflict of interest.
Burch worked for SPIRIT for a little over a year, then moved to a management consulting company. In July, all seven members of the County Board of Commissioners approved Burch’s promotion to county administrator of human services, where he oversees the Department of Family Services and the Department of Social Service.
Earlier in his career, Burch, 45, ran the Department of Social Service, which manages Clark County’s safety net for at-risk residents, while the Department of Family Services is in charge of protecting local children. Burch’s first day in his new job was Monday.