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Former employees allege Las Vegas constable required kickbacks

Las Vegas Township Constable John Bonaventura required employees to kick back part of their pay to him, the Las Vegas Review-Journal has learned.

Two former constable’s office employees in separate interviews told the newspaper that for more than a year they gave their boss hundreds of dollars in cash from each paycheck.

Both said they viewed the kickback much like any other payroll deduction.

“It was like taxes,” one former employee said. “The Bonaventura tax.”

The former staffers estimate they each gave Bonaventura more than $14,000 while employed at the office. Combined, their “Bonaventura tax” bite was about $30,000.

Bonaventura declined a request for an interview but in an email dismissed the allegations as “lies.”

“Absolutely not true,” he said. “These are baseless allegations.”

DISCREET TRANSACTIONS

The former constable’s office workers asked to remain anonymous to avoid jeopardizing future employment prospects. Neither has contacted police.

One said Bonaventura told him he needed money to pay for a lobbyist. The other said he was told the money would help Bonaventura’s re-election fund. But the former employees said they were never certain where the cash actually went.

One employee said he gave $300 to $500 a paycheck, or about $800 in an average month. The other said he paid the constable as much as $1,000 per month.

“Throughout my employment, Mr. Bonaventura would request that I give him money,” one said. “At least once, Mr. Bonaventura mentioned a specific use of money” to hire a lobbyist for the 2013 legislative session.

Both former employees say their payments were made discreetly in Bonaventura’s office.

One former employee kept track of the kickbacks through banking records and produced more than a year’s worth of statements that show a payroll direct deposit immediately followed by withdrawal of hundreds of dollars in cash at a bank near the constable’s downtown office. The employee described using tellers to make the withdrawals to better track the money he gave the constable either in a bank envelope or just as loose cash.

The other former staffer said Bonaventura asked for the regular kickbacks several months after he started working for the constable.

“He would have an attitude and expressed displeasure if I did not promptly give him the money on paydays,” the former employee said.

The actions described in the allegations are potential violations of state ethics laws and federal laws that forbid public officials from receiving illegal gratuities, according to experts on Nevada and U.S. laws.

The allegations could fall within the federal law that forbids illegal receipt of gratuities, said Douglas McNabb, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who is an expert in federal criminal defense. That statute can be used to charge someone who gets cash or other gifts, such as trips and improper gifts that they aren’t supposed to receive, he said.

That statute can be used even if federal prosecutors cannot establish an exchange of benefits between the parties but can prove that one party received something they shouldn’t have, he said. The penalty is up to two years in prison.

A situation with an elected official doing the actions described potentially would violate three portions of the state’s ethics law, said Caren Cafferata-Jenkins, executive director of the Nevada Commission on Ethics.

Cafferata-Jenkins was speaking in generalities about how the law would apply to any elected official facing an ethics complaint in such a situation. No ethics complaints have been filed against Bonaventura in the matter.

The state’s ethics laws forbid a public official from benefiting through a subordinate, using a position to secure unwarranted privileges and advantages, and accepting anything that would improperly influence him.

The civil penalties are $5,000 for a first willful violation, $10,000 for a second violation and $25,000 for a third violation. The commission also has the discretion to file a complaint in court for removal of the public officer after the first violation, and is required to file a court complaint seeking removal after a third violation.

CAMPAIGN CASH

One of the employees said that after he was offered a job, Bonaventura told him that he expects employees to be loyal. In response he gave Bonaventura a $1,000 campaign contribution in the form of a bank check in late 2011.

The worker recently showed the Review-Journal a copy of the canceled check, bearing Bonaventura’s endorsement.

State law requires candidates for office to report all campaign contributions, and list the names of all individuals giving more than $100.

Bonaventura’s campaign finance reports filed with the Nevada secretary of state don’t show the former employee’s $1,000 contribution. In fact, Bonaventura reported no contributions from anyone during that reporting period and never reported any contributions from either former employee.

The constable has failed to report other campaign donations. In his unsuccessful bid to unseat Clark County Commissioner Mary Beth Scow in last month’s Democratic primary, he did not report a $250 contribution from County Commissioner Tom Collins. Records show that Collins properly disclosed the contribution, which came from his own campaign fund.

Lobbyist disclosure records filed with the secretary of state for the 2013 legislative session show the constable’s lobbyist, Travis Field, was unpaid. Field couldn’t be reached for comment.

FATHER’S FOOTSTEPS?

Both former employees said Bonaventura saw nothing unusual in the financial arrangement. One said he likened it to the way his father, who was constable from 1980 to 1986, built his campaign fund.

The elder Bonaventura died in 2001. News accounts from his time in office echo current headlines about his son.

The elder Bonaventura sparred with county commissioners over use of the constable’s office enterprise fund. The commission seriously considered abolishing the office and at one time denied Bonaventura use of a county vehicle.

The enterprise fund languished under the Bonaventura administration of the 1980s, and both father and son have had problems managing finances for the agency, which handles evictions and serves court papers.

Elected in 2010, the current constable Bonaventura has been the center of a variety of high-profile controversies. Those include a backlash over an unsuccessful reality television pilot with foul-mouthed deputies, financial conflicts with the county and jurisdictional disputes with neighboring constables.

County commissioners in March 2013 voted to abolish the office, effective when Bonaventura’s term ends in January 2015.

Bonaventura himself is the subject of a wiretapping probe by the Metropolitan Police Department. The investigation started after the Review-Journal reported that Bonaventura had a secret recording of a telephone conversation with Collins.

In the recording, the profane county commissioner is heard criticizing his fellow commissioners and encouraging Bonaventura to run for a commission seat. Collins has said he never gave permission to record the conversation. Detectives on June 17 executed search warrants at the constable’s office and his residence, taking away computers and other electronic equipment. Bonaventura has not been charged with a crime, however.

Under state law, both parties in a telephone conversation must give consent to be recorded. Anyone convicted of violating the law faces one to four years in prison.

When the elder constable Bonaventura left office in 1986, the enterprise fund was $62,000 in the red and the county had to loan the office money to keep it open.

The current constable’s enterprise fund is in the black, but Bonaventura’s administration has spent it down from $5 million in 2011 to about $1 million now. County officials have expressed concern about the balance of the money in light of comments made by the constable on another secret recording. On that tape, Bonaventura is heard saying he wishes he could empty the account before he leaves office.

Contact Ben Botkin at bbotkin@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2904. Find him on Twitter: @BenBotkin1.

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