Horsford returning contributions after criticism of fundraising letter

CARSON CITY — State Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford said Friday he is returning all contributions given by donors who responded to his letter offering dinners with him and Senate committee chairpersons for large donations.

Horsford, D-Las Vegas, also admitted he did not consult with any committee chairpersons before sending the letter in July that promised a dinner with him and all chairpersons for a contribution of $25,000 or more.

He declined to state how much money had been raised through the letter for his Victory 2010 political action committee. Secretary of State records show the PAC had secured only $10,100 as of May 28. The next report on donations to PACs is due Oct. 26.

"I was wrong," Horsford said. "I can admit when I am wrong. I didn’t consult with any of the chairs, and I regret that. I regret what I did, especially at a time when people deserve integrity in their elected officials."

The majority leader had issued a short statement on Wednesday that he was rescinding the letter he sent to prospective donors. But that letter did not indicate whether he would return donations.

Senate Government Affairs Chairman John Lee, D-North Las Vegas, Natural Resources Chairman David Parks, D-Las Vegas, and Legislative Operations and Elections Chairwoman Joyce Woodhouse, D-Henderson, this week said they knew nothing about the letter.

The senators said they talk with all people, regardless of whether they make donations.

The secretary of state’s office looked at the letter earlier in the week and determined that it did not break any state laws. But Republican leaders and several ethics organizations have questioned the ethics of offering access in exchange for money.

On Friday, Julie Tousa, president of the Nevada Center for Public Ethics in Las Vegas, went further, saying the Horsford letter bordered on accepting bribes for votes.

"Meeting with legislators should be free," she said.

"It (the letter) definitely gives the impression that if a person donates a large amount of money and meets with the senator and other legislators (that) their issues will be heard over others," Tousa said.

"It gives the impression that you really can ‘buy’ votes for the issues you support. Even though the money does not go to a specific candidate, it is not too far away from offering a bribe for a vote," she said.

Horsford said Friday that the ethicists and others "misconstrued" his intentions, but he could see how they interpreted it that way. For that reason, he said he decided to return the money.

"I never intended someone had to make a donation to have access to me or our chairs," he said. "I meet with constituents and business leaders every day and they are not expected to pay anything to talk to me about any issue. I made a poor decision."

He said he will return all contributions made by donors as a result of the July letter. He would not reveal the names of those contributors of the amount of money they gave to his PAC.

But he will leave it up to donors who contributed before the letter was sent out whether they want their money returned.

Any funds the Victory 2010 PAC has received in the last two weeks that are returned now do not have to be mentioned on Horsford’s Oct. 26 contribution report to the secretary of state, according to state law. Earlier donations, even if they were returned, must be reported.

Donations made to the Victory 2010 PAC are to be used to elect more Democrats.

The Democrats have a 12-9 Senate majority, but need a supermajority of 14 to override potential governor vetoes or to pass tax increases.

State government faces a possible shortfall of $3 billion next year and Horsford has said that at least some of the money needed will come from tax increases.

Secretary of state records show Horsford on June 1 reported he had received $10,100 in contributions for his Victory 2010 PAC.

Of the money, $10,000 came from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees national office. The union’s local affiliate represents state employees who have been critical of moves by the Gibbons administration to cut employee health care benefits and to close the Nevada State Prison in Carson City.

The union in February also sought a four-day work week for state employees, but the enabling bill was vetoed by Gov. Jim Gibbons even though members of his staff testified for the bill.

Besides Horsford, Sens. Mike Schneider and Valerie Wiener, both D-Las Vegas, are listed as officers for the Victory 2010 PAC.

Schneider chairs the Energy, Infrastructure and Transportation Committee, while Wiener chairs the Health and Education Committee.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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