CARSON CITY — A former Supreme Court justice whose name surfaced in a recent investigation of prominent campaign manager Gary Gray said Wednesday that any suggestion that he made deals with attorneys in exchange for campaign contributions was “absolutely false.”
Supreme Court candidate Kris Pickering notified authorities last summer after Gray, her campaign coordinator, is alleged to have approached her with an objectionable offer: He told Pickering he would funnel $200,000 into her campaign coffers if she agreed to recuse herself from cases involving eminent domain attorney Laura Fitzsimmons, according to a news report on KLAS-TV, Channel 8.
Gray is alleged to have told Pickering that other justices, including Bob Rose, had signed the same agreement. When pressed for evidence, Gray produced an agreement signed by Rose.
Rose said Wednesday he recused himself from cases involving Fitzsimmons because it was the ethical thing to do and not for any other reason.
“It was a personal decision, a soul-searching decision a judge has to make,” he said via telephone from Elko. “Laura asked me to put it in writing and I saw no reason not to. I thought that was the end of it.”
Rose said he does not have a copy of the letter, which specified that his contentious relationship with former Supreme Court Justice Charles Springer, who joined the Fitzsimmons law firm in 1999, was the reason for his decision to recuse. He only saw his letter again this summer when he was contacted by the FBI. Rose said he spoke to the agents for about 90 minutes.
“They asked if I wanted an attorney,” Rose said. “I said, ‘I don’t need an attorney.’ “
The names of attorneys and judges associated with the Gray investigation have resurrected a 15-year-old Supreme Court matter that severely divided the state’s legal system and torpedoed both business and personal relationships.
The contentious case focused on then-Washoe County District Judge Jerry Carr Whitehead, who was accused in 1992 of judicial misconduct after allegations that he inappropriately communicated with attorneys outside his courtroom.
Fitzsimmons was one of four attorneys who represented Whitehead. Whitehead’s legal team requested that Rose recuse himself from a Supreme Court decision about whether it should consider the Whitehead case or whether the Nevada Judicial Discipline Commission should preside over the hearings.
The defense team contended that Rose should recuse himself because he was being investigated for an unrelated matter of interference in a drug case involving his former clerk. He was later cleared of wrongdoing.
But the lengthy Whitehead battle put Supreme Court justices Springer and Tom Steffen at odds with Rose, who served as chief justice for a period during the case.
Steffen and Springer supported the Supreme Court’s intervention in the disciplinary action against Whitehead. Rose was aligned with the majority of Supreme Court justices who opposed the position taken by Springer and Steffen. Rose eventually voluntarily recused himself from the matter to allow the case to go forward.
But Rose acknowledged he could no longer be impartial on future cases involving Springer as a litigator, should he leave the court. In 1998, Springer chose not to seek a fourth term on the Supreme Court. In 1999, he joined Fitzsimmons’ law firm.
According to one source who followed the case, the Whitehead matter also caused a rift between Pickering and Fitzsimmons. Pickering and Rose were allies and neither liked Springer, according to a 1995 deposition taken during the Whitehead case from Pat Lundvall, an attorney who worked with Pickering and her husband, Steve Morris. Lundvall said that there were discussions in the couple’s law office about providing the media with information about Whitehead.
Fitzsimmons and Whitehead’s legal team were angered that confidential material related to Whitehead was leaked to the media and requested a special hearing to determine the source. There was no official finding that Pickering or her husband provided the media with information during the Whitehead case.
Fitzsimmons declined to comment Wednesday. Pickering was on her way to a speaking engagement and declined to discuss the matter Wednesday afternoon.
Rose said he made the decision to remove himself from Fitzsimmons’ cases in 1999, when Springer joined her firm.
In the 1990s, Fitzsimmons had repeatedly sought to disqualify Rose from her cases, most of which involved eminent domain. Rose said he fought those efforts because he believed he could be fair to Fitzsimmons and her clients. He won the right to sit on the cases and usually ruled against Fitzsimmons’ clients because of the law, not because of Fitzsimmons, Rose said.
But when Springer joined her law firm, Rose said he no longer could say truthfully that he could sit on Fitzsimmons’ cases and be impartial.
Rose retired from the Supreme Court in 2006. He now serves as a senior justice, sitting in on a variety of cases around the state.
Rose said he does not know the circumstances involving Pickering and Gray. He said in his case, he recused himself because he believed it was the proper decision to make, given the strong dislike he and Springer have for each other.
“Legally and ethically I was required to do this,” Rose said.
Deborah Schumacher, Pickering’s opponent in November’s general election, questioned the investigation into Pickering’s allegations about Gray. She first learned about the probe Tuesday.
“It didn’t make sense to me that if this is an ongoing serious investigation, no one in law enforcement called me or my campaign,” Schumacher said.
Schumacher said she returned $20,000 in contributions that she received from Fitzsimmons and her husband.
“I did it even though I have no idea what this whole thing is about,” Schumacher said. “My whole career, I have taken seriously not to diminish the respect of the judiciary. I decided to return it (the contribution) and make it a dead issue as far as I’m concerned.”
Messages left for Gray on Wednesday were not returned.
Contact reporter Adrienne Packer at email@example.com or 702-384-8710.