Authorities are investigating whether former Clark County Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates illegally enriched herself with political contributions by hiring relatives as campaign staffers and having them return some of their pay to her, sources have told the Review-Journal.
Although the criminal probe has been ongoing for months, Las Vegas police confirmed publicly for the first time last week that they were investigating Atkinson Gates.
“We are, in fact, conducting a review of allegations related to the former commissioner’s campaign contributions and spending,” Assistant Sheriff Mike McClary said.
He would not elaborate.
Specifically, police are focusing on the $407,343 Atkinson Gates paid her son, his future wife and the couple’s business from her 2004 campaign fund. The payments represent more than half the $749,000 war chest Atkinson Gates spent coasting to a landslide victory and a fourth term on what is considered Nevada’s most powerful political board.
Multiple law enforcement sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said detectives are exploring what happened to the money after it was paid to Atkinson Gates’ son, Brian Atkinson Turner, and Katie O’Gara, whom Turner married in March 2005, four months after the election.
“Our case is looking at where that money ended up,” one official said. “If it got back into her (Atkinson Gates’) hands, that’s fraud and money laundering.”
No law enforcement officials familiar with the investigation would say whether police had uncovered evidence implicating the former politician in a crime, ethics violation or other impropriety.
Police also wouldn’t pinpoint when the investigation began, but sources said it was under way by the time Atkinson Gates announced she was stepping down from the commission in January.
There is no law against hiring relatives as political consultants or campaign staffers. But law enforcement sources said it appears Atkinson Gates was not primarily spending campaign contributions on getting her message to voters, but on providing an income to her son and his future bride.
Turner, who turned 21 the year of the election, was paid $83,010 by the Atkinson Gates campaign as a staffer and consultant.
O’Gara was paid $136,350 by the campaign. The couple’s firm, Advibe Advertising, was paid $187,983, with two-thirds of that campaign expense reported as “office expenses.”
Local political consultants said that was extremely high overhead for a campaign.
“You should be seeing at least 75 or 85 percent of your budget going to message — advertising — not office expenses and consultants, but things that are actually going to reach voters,” said one veteran consultant who’s helped numerous candidates win local office in recent years.
Police and national campaign finance experts also found it unusual that Atkinson Gates conferred some 54 percent of her campaign funds to the young couple and their business considering neither has a reputation as an experienced political strategist.
Turner has been arrested twice as an adult on drug-related charges, though both cases were dismissed.
“I can’t recall ever hearing of someone paying half their funds to family members,” said Steve Weissman, associate director for policy at The Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan research group affiliated with The George Washington University. “And they’re not exactly veteran political consultants, so that makes you ask: Is there something else going on there?”
Turner and O’Gara could not be reached for comment, and Atkinson Gates didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.
O’Gara, with whom Turner had a child a month before the November 2004 election, has operated one other business with her husband besides Advibe. The couple owns an outcall service that provides adult entertainers to customers.
Atkinson Gates has been an outspoken critic of such adult-oriented businesses, calling for tighter restrictions on strip clubs and criticizing as “smut” the handbills passed out to promote outcall services.
Atkinson Gates resigned this year in the middle of her fourth term, saying she wanted to devote her time to her family, education and home-building business.
Before spending 14 years on the County Commission, the native Las Vegan and graduate of Clark High School served as a member of the Clark County School Board from 1985 until 1992, when she was elected to the County Commission.
She served two terms as chairwoman of the commission.
She said in January interviews that she was proud to be stepping down without encountering the criminal charges that had ensnared her former commission colleagues in a public corruption scandal.
“I don’t ever have to worry about a probe,” she said in a TV interview. “I don’t ever have to worry about going to jail.”
Review-Journal writer Brian Haynes contributed to this report.