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Nevada may be too civil settling campaign finance violations

While I have no doubts that former Assemblyman Morse Arberry Jr. deposited campaign checks worth $121,545 into his personal account, I do have serious doubts whether he’ll be convicted of six felonies.

The paper trail shows it happened during his 2008 campaign, and the prosecution should have no trouble proving it.

What will be troublesome is that routinely in Nevada, most campaign finance violations are handled with a civil penalty and a fine, not a criminal charge.

Yet Arberry was charged in June with three counts of perjury and three counts of offering false instrument for filing.

When former Las Vegas Councilwoman Janet Moncrief was charged in 2004, her attorney Richard Wright argued charging her criminally when similar cases were resolved civilly was "selective prosecution." Her indictment on one count of perjury and four counts of filing a false instrument involved her failure to report contributions and expenses, including a donated van, consulting services and $30,000 in payments to teens who walked for her.

Nevada Supreme Court Justice Nancy Saitta, who was a district judge at the time, made it clear she was close to dismissing the indictment based on selective prosecution. That nudged both sides into an agreement where Moncrief paid a $5,000 fine and admitted to civil violations to end the case.

I remember it because the Moncrief case sparked a war of words between two Republican politicians who would go on to bigger things.

Dean Heller was secretary of state at the time and Brian Sandoval was the attorney general, and the two became downright nasty over the Moncrief case in a snotty exchange of letters.

Heller said the Moncrief case should never have been a criminal case and said he had lost confidence in the attorney general’s office and wanted his own independent counsel. Heller said an "irreconcilable conflict" existed between the two offices.

Sandoval said Heller’s office had fully supported charging Moncrief criminally and it wasn’t selective prosecution, it was aggressive prosecution.

Saitta ordered them both to come before her and testify about the case on Feb. 17, 2005.

Not surprisingly, and to my disappointment, the Moncrief settlement was reached a few days before that hearing, circumventing the need for two state officials to take each other on in what was destined to be a bare-knuckle event.

Hard feelings quickly evaporated between Sandoval and Heller, as proven by the Nevada governor’s appointment of Heller to the U.S. Senate this year.

But the selective prosecution issue remains alive.

Let’s have a history of campaign finance violations in Nevada handled civilly, not criminally.

When the late state Controller Kathy Augustine was accused of campaign violations in 2004, it was through an ethics complaint, and later an impeachment by the Assembly and a conviction by the state Senate. No felony charges were filed against her for misusing state personnel and equipment for her 2002 campaign.

Former Assemblyman Chad Christensen paid a fine of $4,500 in 2004 after admitting he didn’t report some contributions and expenses. He had to account for about $18,000 on his 2004 report. Again, it was handled civilly, not criminally.

More recently, when gubernatorial candidate Rory Reid bent campaign laws to fatten his war chest by creating 90 phony political action committees, which contributed $900,000 to his campaign, circumventing the limits, that was not deemed criminal. Reid settled his case through a civil action and by agreeing to pay a $25,000 fine out of his personal funds.

Based on what has happened before in Nevada, I predict the case against Arberry brought by Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto will fizzle.

Even while I despise what Arberry most likely has done for years, the law can’t have one standard for his misdeeds and another for Reid, Moncrief, Christensen and Augustine.

Call it selective prosecution or a double standard; that’s not right.

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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