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New watchdog of government ethics continues enforcing vital unwritten law

When Craig Walton died in October, there was concern the Nevada Center for Public Ethics he founded might wither from neglect.

But a core group of 45 people who care deeply about ethics have committed to keep it going, and Julie Tousa, a graduate of UNLV’s Ethics and Policy Studies master’s program under Walton, is the acting president.

It’s a make or break time for the center, but with no shortage of ethical issues in Las Vegas, Tousa already has been answering news media calls about questionable ethics.

When the Las Vegas Sun reported the dirty details of Las Vegas City Council members’ “special events” expenses, Tousa questioned the propriety of council members using government money to promote themselves.

Councilman Steve Ross, the most generous with city dollars, spent $59,312 at his special events, including $1,000 for beach balls with his name on them. A special event or a self-promotion? You don’t have to think too hard on that one.

Council members Gary Reese’s and Lois Tarkanian’s food fests? Self-promotion.

Councilman Lawrence Weekly’s custom candy bars? Self-promotion.

Councilman Steve Wolfson’s pencils and water bottles carrying his name? Again, self-promotion.

These guys raise millions in campaign dollars, so I can’t figure out why they can’t spend their campaign money on “special events.”

The city’s “reform” on special events expenditures is a joke. It set a $35,000-a-year cap per member. Do they think $245,000 a year is Monopoly money?

Becoming a lippy columnist, I no longer need someone with authority to say this was wrong. I have the luxury of expressing my own opinion. But for decades as a reporter, Walton was my voice of ethics, the source I turned to for an authoritative opinion, starting with then-Clark County Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates’ attempted foray into the daiquiri business at the resorts she regulated, through the “give your friends a big bucks concession at the airport” farce, and through the ethical woes of various county commissioners now musing their ethics in prison.

At first, I turned to Walton because he was an academic, head of UNLV’s Ethics and Policy Studies. When he retired in 2004 and started the Nevada Center for Public Ethics from his home, the news media followed.

Reporters need ethics experts more than columnists do, but I’m delighted to see Tousa step to the plate as a new voice of ethics. But you need to know a little about her.

“We feel that Nevada still needs a conscience and plan to continue what Dr. Walton began,” she said.

She received her bachelor’s degree in social work from Brigham Young University in 1994, and that year she and her husband, high school teacher and football and baseball coach Frank Tousa, moved to Las Vegas.

She entered Walton’s graduate program in 1999, graduating with a master’s degree in ethics and policy in 2004. Her thesis seems to be relevant: “Organizational Ethics and Maintaining an Ethical Environment Through Employee Involvement.”

For five years, she was a social worker for the state and until recently she worked for seven years for St. Rose Dominican Hospitals as the volunteer coordinator. She served on the St. Rose Hospital Ethics Committee for about a year.

Tousa resigned her job after the adoption of her 6-month-old son and now writes adoption home studies for couples wanting to adopt. “Being at home has also given me more time to give to the NCPE.”

I’m hoping she has the enduring optimism that Walton had, and after talking to her Friday, I think she does.

Year after year, he pleaded with the Legislature to adopt stronger ethics and campaign finance laws, and year after year, his proposals were emasculated, usually in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Walton saw the ugly side of the process, yet continued to testify and lobby and speak frankly. Tousa said she worked with Walton on the center’s legislative package and accompanied Walton to some hearings.

Despite seeing how that ugly process worked, Tousa believes a time will come when the Legislature does want to pass ethics bills. “I watched the Legislative effort and saw how there was not always enough time to make good choices.”

She is optimistic, yet diplomatic.

It takes a strong personality to say publicly why elected officials have lost their ethical compass.

Good luck, Julie Tousa.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275.

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