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Law firms donate cash to candidates for Las Vegas judgeships

When it comes to elections, judges and those running for judgeships have to fundraise. Though it’s not unusual for judicial candidates to lend money to their own campaigns, many turn to an obvious source of donations — law firms and attorneys.

At least 46 percent of the money in the race comes from local attorneys and law firms, excluding the candidate’s own loans and contributions, a Las Vegas Review-Journal analysis of campaign finance reports found.

Although an attorney can donate independently of a law firm, the biggest contributors have given at least this much money to the 2016 judicial races as of June 9:

■ Chesnoff & Schonfeld $20,250

■ Edward M. Bernstein & Associates $12,000

■ Eglet Prince $11,764 (includes in-kind donations)

■ Patti, Sgro, Lewis & Roger $11,500 (through PS PAC)

■ Adam S. Kutner & Associates $11,250

■ Reza Athari & Associates $10,700

■ Pariente Law Firm $10,500

Calls to two of the law firms were not returned by press time.

Attorneys from the Clark County public defender’s office gave 34 times, the most of any group, but totaled $6,200 in comparison. Attorneys from the Clark County district attorney’s office, which included the district attorney himself, made at least 19 contributions.

It’s not illegal for judicial candidates to accept contributions from law firms and attorneys, but is it unethical?

One judge, Conrad Hafen, has refused to take any money.

“I do not accept campaign contributions from attorneys because I think it is wrong,” he wrote in an email.

Hafen was elected to the Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Department 14 in 2010 to a six-year term.

“As a judge, I must be fair and impartial. I want to avoid even the appearance of impropriety,” Hafen wrote.

However, his decision could cost him his elected seat. Hafen raised $2,750, with $500 as a loan. But his opponent, Amy “JoAnne” Chelini, raised about $127,800, including the $25,000 she lent her campaign, according to campaign finance reports filed with the secretary of state’s office.

Chelini isn’t the only one. Others raised more than $100,000 for different departments within the Las Vegas Justice of the Peace. Judge Bita Yeager, who was appointed by the County Commission to fill a vacancy in Department 6, raised $160,002 and lent her campaign $7,500. Her opponent Jeff Rogan raised $107,587 with a $35,000 loan and Rebecca Kern raised $36,241.26 with a $600 loan.

Chief Deputy Public Defender Harmony Letizia raised the most, nearly $159,900, without any loans, of all the candidates running for Las Vegas Justice of the Peace and Clark County District Court. Her situation is unusual, as her father ran election campaigns for both the former and current mayors of Las Vegas. The incumbent judge in Department 3, Janiece Marshall, raised $42,025 and the remaining opponent Sean P. Connell raised $66,280.

The judge who raised the most money with loans is Eric Johnson, who was appointed by Gov. Brian Sandoval to a vacancy in Clark County District Court Department 20.

Johnson, whose wife is a twice-elected judge said, “If you go back and look at the last election cycle, you’re going to find that the expenditures here with me and other judges is nothing unusual.”

Johnson raised $196,064 with a $10,000 contribution from Chesnoff & Schonfeld. He lent himself nearly $73,000, but one of his opponents, Anat “Annette” Levy lent herself about nearly $80,000, totaling $141,725 for her campaign.

The District Court covers a larger geographic area than Las Vegas Justice Court, and that can require more money to get a candidate’s name out to voters.

“This is a countywide race. It isn’t an assembly seat which you would deal with a much smaller geographic area,” he said. “It’s difficult to get that message out and that’s why these seats can be expensive.”

Contact Data Editor Adelaide Chen at achen@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0281. Find @adelaide_chen on Twitter. Contact Tatiana Villamil at lvillamil@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0264. Find @tatianavr92 on Twitter.

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