Democrats submitted an ethics complaint against Gov. Jim Gibbons on Saturday, charging that the governor abused his position to get a discount on his property taxes for a piece of land in rural Nevada.
“Mr. Gibbons, in order to gain a few thousand dollars in tax breaks — which the legislators of this state have determined are appropriate for Nevada ranchers and farmers to supplement and encourage their livelihoods — pressured and prevailed upon a longtime public servant who sought only to apply the laws of this state fairly and accurately,” the complaint states.
“This is both unethical and unbecoming of the highest executive officer of the state.”
The complaint by Travis Brock, executive director of the Nevada Democratic Party, was mailed Saturday to the state Ethics Commission.
Brock lodged a second complaint against Tax Commissioner John E. Marvel, who sought the tax break for Gibbons as his lawyer.
The governor’s spokesman, Ben Kieckhefer, said Saturday that he welcomed an investigation by the ethics panel.
“This will be a good opportunity to prove that the governor did nothing wrong,” he said.
Elko County Assessor Joe Aguirre has said he felt pressured to give Gibbons a tax designation that potentially saved the governor thousands of dollars in taxes on the 40 acres he purchased last year.
Gibbons and his estranged wife, Dawn, purchased the vacant land in Elko County in August 2007 from Jerry Carr Whitehead, a former judge, for $575,000.
Land used for agriculture is taxed at a reduced rate, but must meet certain criteria. Gibbons’ land had been part of a ranch and was used for cattle grazing.
By law, to get the agricultural tax rate, a piece of grazing land must earn at least $5,000 in income and be large enough to produce more than half the feed for the animals on it.
Gibbons came to Aguirre personally last fall to ask about the possibility of getting the tax break, and Aguirre has said he told Gibbons the land was far too small to meet the legal criteria.
Aguirre was then contacted by Marvel, acting as Gibbons’ attorney.
Because the Tax Commission has authority over county assessors, Aguirre told The Associated Press that Marvel’s involvement made him feel “uncomfortable.”
The tax break eventually was granted, reducing Gibbons’ taxes on the land from as much as $5,000 to about $40.
Aguirre, like Gibbons, is a Republican. He is nearing retirement after 17 years in the elected assessor’s post.
Marvel is the son of longtime Assemblyman John Marvel, R-Battle Mountain.
Neither Aguirre nor Marvel returned phone calls seeking comment Saturday.
Gibbons has said that in talking to the assessor about his land and retaining a local lawyer to handle the matter, he did what any regular citizen could have done.
But Brock said it seems clear that the governor and a well-placed crony bullied a local official to get preferential treatment.
“Jim Gibbons did the worst thing an elected official can do. It appears he used his position as governor for personal gain, to get a tax break he didn’t qualify for,” Brock said Saturday.
“I certainly hope the ethics committee will take this under advisement and investigate. The law is the law. Public officials are prohibited from using their power for personal gain.”
The eight-member ethics panel is charged with enforcing ethics laws that prohibit public officials from abusing their position.
Three current members have been appointed by Gibbons.
The executive director of the ethics commission, Patty Cafferata, is a Republican former state treasurer, assemblywoman, gubernatorial candidate and Republican National Committee member.
The executive director is charged with investigating complaints and determining whether “just and sufficient cause exists for the Commission to render an opinion in the matter,” according to statute.
Complaints lodged with the commission are confidential unless the panel finds they merit a hearing.
The statute on ethics states: “A public officer or employee shall not use his position in government to secure or grant unwarranted privileges, preferences, exemptions or advantages for himself, any business entity in which he has a significant pecuniary interest, or any person to whom he has a commitment in a private capacity to the interests of that person.”
Willful violations of ethics law are punishable by civil penalty of up to $5,000, plus twice the amount of financial benefit an official is found to have received by acting unethically.
Asked for proof that agricultural income was being earned on the land, Marvel provided Aguirre with copies of checks from Whitehead to Gibbons totaling about $5,700.
The complaint filed Saturday alleges that Whitehead inflated his payments to Gibbons to help the governor make his case for the tax break.
“There is no possible way that the amount of the payments, which if Mr. Gibbons’ representations are to be accepted as true, account for grazing lease payments from the time he bought the property in August through the end of the year (five months!), bear any relation to the current market for such leases on similar land in northern Nevada,” the complaint states.
“Grazing leases on similar land garner, if lucky, about $250 per year per cow. The property in question could — perhaps, at a stretch — produce enough for a few head of cattle. At the high end, therefore, Mr. Gibbons’ property might generate approximately $750 or $1,000 in grazing lease income over a whole year. There is simply no way that this land, under current market conditions, could generate the more than $5,000 of grazing income in five months that Mr. Marvel and Mr. Gibbons claim — that is, unless the market and the lease terms were manipulated to inflate the apparent income generated and get the agricultural use tax break.”
Kieckhefer said Gibbons acted appropriately in doing what was required to maintain the agricultural status that the land previously had when it was part of a larger ranch property.
“The governor has not in any way pressured the assessor to do anything,” he said. “He did nothing wrong, and any investigation will show that.”
Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.