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Commissioner sees no conflict going to bat for bus company

In a battle over big bucks and a bus contract, Veolia Transportation recently hired Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins to consult and lobby on its behalf.

It was a short-lived relationship.

On Friday, a day after I interviewed Collins about it and quizzed him about conflicts, he quit, saying, “They don’t need me and I don’t need them.”

Yet even after quitting, Collins sees absolutely nothing wrong about working for Veolia, which approached him about a month ago. “I think I am staying on an ethical path.”

However, Boulder City Mayor Roger Tobler, Mesquite Councilman Kraig Hafen and Henderson Councilwoman Debra March all told me it made them “uncomfortable” when Collins, clearly identifying himself as a consultant for Veolia, called to set up meetings to lobby them on Veolia’s behalf.

“I let him know I had some reservations,” Tobler said.

Hafen, who spoke briefly with Collins about the bus contract after a town hall meeting Wednesday in Mesquite, said, “I see it as a potential problem” to be lobbied by Collins.

Hafen warned Collins it was a bad idea, saying, “You’re going to get your foot caught in the stirrup with this and you’re going to get drug.”

Collins’ answer: “All they had to say is: ‘I don’t want to meet with you.’ ”

Sure, they could have snubbed a county commissioner who votes on issues and grants involving their communities. Sure.

Addressing Hafen’s concerns, Collins noted he was relatively new to politics. “Maybe he needs to listen to both sides.” The county commissioner questions whether Hafen would have been so concerned if Collins had been lobbying for First Transit.

Collins is not on the Regional Transportation Commission, which has tied 4-4 over whether Veolia or First Transit should receive a seven-year fixed bus route contract worth $600 million.

Clark County Commissioners Larry Brown and Chris Giunchigliani are on the RTC board and have voted against First Transit, the lower bidder by $50 million, with Las Vegas City Council members Steve Ross and Lois Tarkanian. Collins said he wouldn’t lobby his fellow county commissioners because that would be a conflict.

But there is no need to. They have voted in ways favoring Veolia repeatedly.

Tobler, March, Hafen and North Las Vegas Councilman Robert Eliason — who didn’t return Collins’ call or mine — all voted to give the contract to First Transit.

Pointing out that the four who have voted for Veolia’s interests are urban politicians and the others are mostly rural, Collins said, “The urban folks may understand the issue more than the other folks.”

Collins wrote Friday, “I was asked to help Veolia find out why there appeared to be a disconnect between them and the rural RTC board members. Because they felt I was familiar with rural issues in Clark County. This was always about helping them reach out to rural Clark County. This was never meant to be about me, or the RTC vote.”

Collins is deluding himself. Of course it was about the RTC vote.

His original decision to lobby for Veolia showed bad judgment on the part of both Collins and Veolia. The whole thing smelled like month-old garbage in 110-degree heat.

Before quitting, Collins set up meetings with three of the four elected officials but canceled them Wednesday. Veolia told him to cancel after discovering the Federal Transit Administration warned the RTC board it stands to lose about $5 million in federal funding if it doesn’t make a decision when it meets Oct. 13. The transit agency also warned that splitting the contract in two, when that wasn’t part of the original request for a proposal, is not permissible under FTA rules.

Collins, a county commissioner since 2005 and a former assemblyman, is an electrician by trade who calls himself “just a plain old cowboy.”

He formed his consulting company in November 2009 and has consulted for a few clients on energy and power line issues. An environmental company hired him but stiffed him when it went bankrupt. He said he will continue consulting.

Collins said he talked to assistant district attorneys before accepting consulting jobs to see whether there are conflicts. He did this with Veolia as well but said he didn’t tell the attorneys it was Veolia. Instead, he asked whether he could lobby people who were not county commissioners who serve on other boards when he is not a member. He said he was advised he could.

Collins said he hasn’t been paid a penny by Veolia. Asked how much he was supposed to be paid, he answered, “Not very much.” Was it less than the $10,000 a month some consultants receive? “A lot less.”

The County Commission is considered a part-time job with a salary of $80,603. Collins’ most recent financial disclosure shows his income is from his county salary, rental property, his position as chairman of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, and Collins Consulting. He no longer lists Collins Line Builders Electric as active.

When Mesquite Citizen Journal Publisher Barbara Ellestad asked Collins about the bus contract at the town hall, he answered, “I’ll disclose right now; a company has approached me to consult or lobby, whichever way you want to call it.”

He said then, and repeated to me, that staffers write requests for bids or requests for proposals to reach the outcome they want. His comments impugned both the process and the staff and hints at a vast conspiracy.

For Collins, the damage to his reputation is done despite his quitting Veolia. His explanations insulted four elected officials and staffers. He repeatedly said he had done nothing unethical, although I had gasped aloud when I heard about it.

Collins is entitled to make a living as a consultant. Other county commissioners have done so. Convicted felons Dario Herrera and Erin Kenny come to mind. But emulating their corrupt career paths wouldn’t be smart.

Elected officials who work as consultants often find themselves sinking in ethical quagmires, whether or not they realize it, even with the best of intentions.

Let’s get real. If they didn’t have these powerful elected jobs, nobody would pay them as consultants.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Email her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call her at (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/Morrison.

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