They were the class of 1999, and their group photo seemed to tell a story. Posing in front of the Clark County Government Center, they appeared earnest, friendly, ready to serve their constituents.
"At the time, it seemed like a decent group of people. It was a diverse commission, but they all came with reasonably good reputations," Bruce Woodbury, the only county commissioner from 1999 still on the board, said last week as he reflected on the photo.
Dario Herrera was a rising star in the Democratic Party. Lance Malone was an ex-cop. Erin Kenny was a dedicated mother headed to law school. Mary Kincaid-Chauncey was a grandmother who owned a flower boutique.
But there was nothing rosy about that collection of commissioners. Four of the commissioners are now locked up or on the way to federal prison for cheating taxpayers of honest services. A fifth, Yvonne Atkinson Gates, is under investigation in connection with her use of campaign contributions.
Woodbury and Myrna Williams, who was unseated in September’s primary election, emerged from the class unscathed by criminal investigations.
Williams could not be reached for comment for this story.
"It’s pretty distressing and depressing," Woodbury said of his former colleagues’ legal troubles.
After the commissioners were indicted in 2003, the county worked to polish its tarnished reputation and convince the public that corruption was not the norm at the Clark County Government Center.
"I want to restore people’s faith in local government," Commissioner Rory Reid said last year. "People are cynical; I understand why."
Snarky comments from speakers at County Commission meetings eventually subsided. Commissioners began discussing issues other than corruption.
But earlier this week, a new black cloud of skepticism drifted over the county building. The district attorney’s office filed charges against former Commissioner Lynette Boggs, claiming she lied on a pair of campaign documents she signed under oath.
Authorities maintain Boggs did not live in her district as she had claimed when she ran for re-election last fall. They also believe she paid her children’s baby sitter using funds from her campaign coffer.
"It’s certainly not helpful anytime something like this happens. It affects perceptions," Woodbury said.
Negative perceptions are nothing new. They date back to when Woodbury, 63, was a child growing up in the Las Vegas Valley.
"It seems like from the time I was a little boy, the Clark County Commission has been the center of controversy in one way or the other," said Woodbury, an attorney. "In those days, it was taken for granted that commissioners and councilmen made money on the side, payoffs and things. That was sort of the word on the street."
Expectations of elected officials have changed over the decades, and rightfully so, Woodbury said.
Still, Woodbury was raised and groomed as a politician in that environment.
He was a newcomer to the County Commission in 1982 when a federal investigation dubbed Operation Yobo snared two commissioners, who were eventually sent to prison for accepting bribes from an undercover FBI agent.
So how has Woodbury resisted pocketing cash from a developer in need of a zone change? How has he rejected, for example, offers of luxury cars in exchange for new policies protecting auto dealerships?
When asked, Woodbury offers a silence that is easily interpreted: Dumb questions.
After a long pause, he said rubbing elbows with Las Vegas’ most elite movers-and-shakers doesn’t appeal to him. Neither do invitations to glitzy affairs or driving around in fancy cars.
Those perks don’t gauge Woodbury’s effectiveness as a commissioner, he said.
"I am motivated by issues, by trying to accomplish things," Woodbury said. "The results of how well I’m doing are in terms of transportation, flood control, air quality. You just have to remember you are a public servant, and it’s not the other way around. You can easily lose your way."
Herrera became the poster boy for potential political superstars who lose their way. Herrera was young, handsome, articulate, and his biggest cheerleader was Sen. Harry Reid, one of the most powerful Democrats in the nation.
"He was very young and tapped for huge things" when he was elected to the commission at 26, said Craig Walton of the Nevada Center for Ethics. "Obviously, he bought into that. He was destined for great influence and clout."
Even Rory Reid rode the Herrera bandwagon for a while.
"Dario is the whole package," Rory Reid, then the chairman of the state Democratic Party, said in 2000. "He is charismatic, hard-working, well-meaning. He’s everything you want an elected official to be."
Herrera is serving a 51-month federal prison sentence for accepting cash bribes from strip club owner Michael Galardi.
Kincaid-Chauncey received a 30-month prison term, Malone is serving a 6-year term, and Kenny is scheduled to be sentenced in July.
Reid replaced Herrera on the commission, and former Assemblyman Tom Collins beat Kincaid-Chauncey. But Kenny’s district continued to struggle after her departure in 2002.
DISTRICT F: GRADE F?
Former state senator Mark James captured the District F seat after Kenny opted to run for attorney general in 2002. But 15 months into his term, James abruptly quit. He threw out clichés to explain his decision: He explained he wanted to pursue other opportunities and spend more time with his family.
Then-Gov. Kenny Guinn appointed Boggs to the seat in 2004. Boggs lost her bid for re-election last year after a surveillance video emerged showing the commissioner in her bathrobe, taking out the garbage and picking up a newspaper at a home that was not in her district.
The investigation was orchestrated by the Las Vegas Police Protective Association and Culinary Local 226.
Boggs had signed a sworn statement saying she lived at a different address, a home that was smaller than the one she was filmed living in.
Residents in District F are now looking to Commissioner Susan Brager to provide stability and honesty to their region.
Lee Plotkin, chairman of the Spring Valley Town Board, which oversees portions of District F, said the charges against Boggs are too new to measure constituents’ response to them. But there is little doubt the Kenny regime continues to haunt residents, he said.
Now armed with the truth about what motivated Kenny, residents immediately suggest backroom deals or question whether money is changing hands when they don’t get their way.
"I still hear it at meetings when people are angry and frustrated. I still hear Erin Kenny’s name," Plotkin said.
When asked why residents in District F have had such bad luck, Plotkin noted that Kenny was in power during eight of the tumultuous years. He hypothesized that vast amounts of vacant land and developers eager to build in the county’s fast-growing district contributed to Kenny’s troubles.
Kenny has testified that she received $200,000 to push through a zone change allowing a pharmacy to be built over neighbors’ objections. She also acknowledged receiving compensation after supporting a developer’s failed attempt to build a neighborhood casino.
"I think it’s really because of the vacant land available for development, starting with Rhodes (Ranch)," Plotkin said. "It draws big money, and big money draws big temptations."
Plotkin believes Brager is more in tune with the residents’ concerns.
"Prior to November, it was like slamming my head against the wall with the makeup of the BCC," Plotkin said about the Board of County Commissioners.
EENIE MEENIE MINEE MOE?
Have voters become so disillusioned with elected officials in Southern Nevada that they’re staying away from the polls?
That is a question Walton posed after only 11.6 percent of the 245,000 eligible voters showed up at the polls Tuesday. Municipal elections never draw large crowds, but Clark County Registrar of Voters Larry Lomax said the figure was the lowest in years.
"It isn’t merely apathy and people new to the valley," Walton said. "One thing corruption does is makes people want to vomit. For that many (indictments) in a fairly short period of time, it’s shocking there would be that much betrayal."
Walton wonders whether well-meaning, qualified candidates can no longer afford to run for office or whether political parties simply are not looking for them.
Voters are left choosing between seasoned politicians, some of whom have proven they can’t be trusted, and newcomers to the political arena. Electing a fresh face to office has posed problems as well.
Las Vegas City Councilwoman Janet Moncrief was ousted from office 19 months into her term after she was indicted on charges related to committing campaign finance violations in 2003.
Voters’ decisions are largely based on party affiliations and what political consultants and public relations agencies are telling them about the candidates, Walton said. The problem is, what they are saying is not always the truth.
"Erin Kenny was sold, Dario … all of them were sold," Walton said. "That’s one thing about a salesman and PR people. They can say anything. They take what they got and make it look terrific."
Atkinson Gates seemed like the ideal candidate to oversee District D. She spent years on the Clark County School Board of Trustees and was a black woman representing a largely black community.
But she too ran into troubles on the commission.
Critics blasted her for unethical behavior after she voted in favor of two friends to operate lucrative concessions at McCarran International Airport. The state Ethics Commission found that she had broken ethics laws; but a judge later dismissed the case, saying the statutes were vague.
She was subsequently twice re-elected.
She resigned from the commission in February, saying she was proud to leave without concerns about the sorts of law enforcement investigations that had torpedoed her former colleagues’ careers.
"I’m also proud to be leaving the commission on my terms and with my reputation … still intact," she said.
Two months later, Las Vegas police officials revealed they were investigating whether Atkinson Gates misused political contributions to enrich herself. She has not been charged with any crimes.
Despite it all, Woodbury does not believe political corruption is as widespread as some skeptics believe.
"When you look at the totality of the vast majority of people who have worked on the County Commission and other levels of government, they have been good and honest," Woodbury said.