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What are they hiding? UNLV, CSN thwart transparency of personnel records

Nevada law makes the personnel records of public employees available for taxpayer scrutiny. But Nevada governments routinely keep the records secret — and get away with it.

What are they hiding?

As part of its investigation of Robert Telles, the public official accused of killing Review-Journal investigative reporter Jeff German last year, the news organization requested Telles’ work history from the College of Southern Nevada.

And during a separate investigation, responding to a tip about allegations of workplace misconduct by a former top UNLV official, the newspaper filed repeated requests to review settlements, emails and other university records.

Both requests were delayed and eventually denied by the taxpayer-funded institutions in violation of the Nevada Public Records Act, said Review-Journal Chief Legal Officer Benjamin Zensen Lipman.

“Too often, governmental entities take court rulings that allow the withholding of portions of records in limited circumstances and cite the decisions as a lawful basis for withholding vast categories of records,” he said. “It seems like a concerted effort to avoid providing public records necessary for all of us to understand what our government officials are up to.”

Nevada’s public records law does not have an exemption that allows government agencies to withhold personnel records. Many states, including Arizona, Florida and Colorado, regularly provide resumes, performance reviews and disciplinary records to journalists.

Taxpayers pay the salaries and benefits of public employees and have a right to know whether the workers are doing their jobs and whether managers are properly supervising and disciplining employees, government transparency advocates argue.

In Nevada, however, state departments, county divisions and law enforcement agencies have cited court rulings and administrative code and used old-fashioned stonewalling to deny the release of personnel records, Lipman said.

The Review-Journal is highlighting the refusal of Nevada governments to release public employee personnel records to launch a new, occasional feature called “What Are They Hiding?” This feature will spotlight governments’ lack of compliance with public records laws, how they justify breaking the law and who, specifically, is responsible for keeping information from taxpayers. We’ll also explain how the law is supposed to work and the public importance of the information that is being withheld.

CSN request

Robert Telles was arrested Sept. 7 and charged with murdering Review-Journal investigative reporter Jeff German, who had written stories questioning Telles’ management of the Clark County public administrator’s office and conduct with staff. Telles lost his re-election bid after the stories ran and, police say, he sought revenge, stabbing the 69-year-old veteran journalist to death on Sept. 2.

After the slaying, the Review-Journal unearthed information showing that Telles had a history of inappropriate conduct, including a domestic violence arrest and allegations of sexual harassment when he was a student at UNLV’s law school.

Before attending law school, Telles was an HVAC technician at the College of Southern Nevada. The college employed him from July 2008 to February 2015. The Review-Journal wanted to determine whether he had any allegations or findings of workplace misconduct at the school. If so, what did the college do about it?

But the college declined to turn over Telles’ personnel records or comment on whether any formal complaints were filed against Telles or investigated during his time at CSN.

Richard Lake, a spokesman for the college and a former Review-Journal reporter, called the information — “if it existed” — confidential and not subject to public disclosure.

In response to a request for Telles’ personnel file, CSN said the only information subject to public disclosure was Telles’ dates of employment, a generic description of his job duties and compensation schedule, and a confirmation that his educational background met the minimum requirements for the position.

The college cited a Nevada System of Higher Education code that stipulates all personnel and payroll files of NSHE employees will be kept confidential.

However, “the Nevada Supreme Court has clearly stated that internal regulations cannot be used to limit what records are available under the Nevada Public Records Act,” Lipman said.

In a statement, Lake said the college strongly supports the state’s public records law and believes “wholeheartedly in the concept of transparency in government.”

“Every public records request the college receives is handled in accordance with the law,” Lake wrote.

UNLV request

In 2022, the Review-Journal received a tip that a former top UNLV official repeatedly had been accused of workplace harassment and misconduct, leading to taxpayer-funded settlements.

In July, the Review-Journal submitted a series of requests asking for any settlement payments, internal reports about the misconduct allegations and emails regarding the individual, but the school repeatedly deflected the inquiries. Officials cited a series of rulings in other states that have no relevance to Nevada; Nevada Administrative Code, which courts held does not trump state law; and Nevada Revised Statutes covering the confidentiality required of other agencies but did not apply to UNLV.

The school also repeatedly closed the requests, saying the inquiries were too broad and that the newspaper did not provide definitions of common words like “claims,” “complaints,” “misconduct,” “employment issues,” and “hostile work environment.”

While most of the denials came from unnamed officials through UNLV’s records portal, Associate General Counsel Susan Carrasco O’Brien also exchanged emails with the newspaper saying the request did not seek identifiable records and that the email search produced too much data.

“This is an enormous volume of data for what is, essentially, a request for a ‘needle in the haystack,’” she wrote. “This request which compiled the production of a huge volume of material is objectionable as unduly burdensome.”

Nevada’s public records law clearly says government agencies must make “a reasonable effort to assist the requester to focus the request in such a manner as to maximize the likelihood the requester will be able to inspect, copy or receive a copy of the public book or record as expeditiously as possible.”

Instead, the school cited its internal policies to thwart transparency required by state law.

“Personnel records are exempt from disclosure as a personnel confidential record pursuant to the Board of Regents’ Handbook,” school records staff wrote.

What are they hiding?

Review-Journal Executive Editor Glenn Cook said the taxpaying public has a right to know whether UNLV’s leadership is being held accountable for misconduct, or whether it protects favored individuals regardless of their behavior.

“The Board of Regents and public colleges and universities clearly think they trump the Nevada Legislature, but they don’t,” Cook said. “Personnel records are intended to be open to keep bad actors out of public service.”

UNLV has a history of covering up misconduct and using public money to ferret out the source of leaks, as revealed in prior stories by the Review-Journal.

On Feb. 16, UNLV officials told the newspaper that there were no internal investigative reports on the workplace misconduct controversy despite a high-placed source confirming that the report exists.

“It would be a violation of the law if (UNLV) falsely claimed they didn’t have a document they knew they had,” Lipman said.

O’Brien did not respond to a request for an interview. Instead, the school spokesman provided a statement.

“The university respectfully disagrees with the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s legal interpretation regarding the confidentiality of exempt state employee personnel records under Nevada law,” UNLV spokesman Francis McCabe, who also used to work at the Review-Journal, wrote in an email. “The university has engaged in good faith communications and efforts with the newspaper and strongly believes its responses to the Review-Journal’s requests for exempt personnel records are in full compliance with the Nevada Public Records Act and state law.”

Under state law, the only legal remedy for a wrongly denied records request is to file a lawsuit and go to court, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and delay the release of records for years. In 2021, for example, Clark County was ordered to pay $167,000 in taxpayer money to the Review-Journal for failing to release juvenile autopsy reports as part of a nearly four-year effort to keep the documents secret.

Were you wrongly denied access to public records? Share your story with us at whataretheyhiding@reviewjournal.com.

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

Contact Lorraine Longhi at 702-387-5298 or llonghi@reviewjournal.com. Follow her at @lolonghi on Twitter.

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