Ricki Barlow isn’t the first crooked politician to treat campaign contributions like a personal pot of gold, and he won’t be the last to dip into campaign cash.
I suspect others do it but haven’t been caught.
Barlow, the disgraced former Las Vegas city councilman, on Monday pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to taking campaign moolah for his personal use. In doing so, he joined former Assemblyman Morse Arberry Jr. and former Las Vegas Councilwoman Janet Moncrief in that wing of the Political Hall of Shame.
But Barlow’s case is different in that others might go down with him. Enablers who provided kickbacks to Barlow seem to be under investigation, too, according to the plea agreement made public Monday.
The essence of the wire fraud count against Barlow was that he paid inflated bills to purported campaign vendors and then had them kick back the cash to him for his personal use without the knowledge of his campaign treasurer.
Barlow was elected in 2007 and re-elected in 2011 and 2015. Before that, he was a liaison for then-City Councilman Lawrence Weekly, who is now a Clark County commissioner.
Barlow admitted that during his 2015 re-election campaign, he hired four trusted associates to work as vendors, decided their pay and directed them to kick back a substantial percentage from their inflated bills.
On April 6, 2015, he emailed his accounting firm, directing it to pay $4,000 to one vendor — hence the wire fraud — and afterward took half the money from the vendor as a cash kickback.
He used Allegiant Business Development as a front to accept about $49,125 in kickbacks from the four vendors.
He also accepted cash totaling $17,000 from one individual donor.
The plea agreement doesn’t name names. Neither the individual donor nor the four vendors are identified.
Here’s the language that caught my eye: Barlow agreed to pay $66,125 in restitution, but that money can also be repaid jointly and severally by him or any co-conspirators. “But at this time no co-conspirators have been charged.”
That verbiage suggests others may be charged.
Barlow also has to surrender assets he obtained as a result of his crimes. He was married to a woman who worked for federal pretrial services, so there were two incomes to support their family.
While he was taking kickbacks, Barlow was taking classes at Pepperdine University through a special program, the Presidents and Key Executives Program. The 15-month program costs $154,500, and classes are three days once a month. Barlow obtained his MBA.
Irony: Pepperdine touts itself as a Christian-based school focusing on “ethical leadership and corporate social responsibility.”
Tough plea deal
When Barlow is sentenced May 31, he faces up to 18 months in prison.
It seems like a pretty tough plea deal, particularly when compared with the sweet deal Arberry received. Arberry was prosecuted by fellow Democrats: Then-Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto brought charges following an investigation by then-Secretary of State Ross Miller.
Arberry cut out the middleman. He deposited $121,521 worth of campaign checks into his personal account in 2008 and 2009. The paper trail did him in. He probably thought no one would ever look.
Arberry was charged with six felonies in 2011, three counts each of perjury and filing false campaign reports. It was plea-bargained down to a misdemeanor of fraudulent appropriation of property. No prison time for the longtime North Las Vegas assemblyman. He walked away with a six-month suspended sentence.
When Arberry ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2016, the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Ben Botkin discovered that he had repaid $100 a month over one year and then stopped paying. Needless to say, he lost in the Democratic primary.
Before Arberry, state officials handled campaign contribution violations as a civil matter. Moncrief didn’t face any time for her misdeeds.
Moncrief was charged in 2004 with five felonies, but the case was settled with a civil fine.
The Moncrief case was noteworthy in that it pitted then-Secretary of State Dean Heller and then-Attorney General Brian Sandoval against each other. Heller said it never should have been a criminal case and an “irreconcilable conflict” existed between the two offices. I was looking forward to a court hearing where both would testify, when the case abruptly settled, depriving the news media of verbal fisticuffs between Heller and Sandoval.
Today, of course, Heller is a U.S. senator and Sandoval is governor.
I can only speculate what might happen to the as-yet-unnamed individual who on three occasions handed cash totaling $17,000 to Barlow. That sounds more like a bribe than a kickback.
Barlow’s attorney, Richard Wright, told me his client has not agreed to become a government witness. But Review-Journal reporters David Ferrera and Jeff German have reported that an undercover informant was involved in the investigation. Maybe Barlow’s testimony is unnecessary.
When he resigned from the City Council on Jan. 22, Barlow read a statement saying he was “deeply ashamed” of his conduct.
He should be mortified. So should his enablers.
Jane Ann Morrison’s column runs Sundays in the Nevada section. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0275. Follow @janeannmorrison on Twitter.
A previous version of this column incorrectly reported that then-Assemblyman Chad Christensen was fined for spending campaign contributions on personal expenses.