Where do the campaign dollars go? Increasingly, to family coffers

Former Clark County Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates certainly isn’t the first to take campaign dollars and write checks to family members; she’s just the most generous. The jaw-dropping $407,343 that she paid her son, the woman who is now his wife and their political consulting business — half the money she raised that year — was more generous than most.

Over decades of reviewing campaign finance reports, I noticed an increasing number of family members getting paid for their work. Kids are paid for stuffing envelopes and heading volunteer walks. Spouses are paid as consultants whether they are professionals or not.

In a story I wrote in 1998 after the primary reports were filed, I noted that Clark County Commissioner Erin Kenny had paid her uncle, Daniel Tomcheff, $23,570 to work on her political staff and her aunt, Erin Tomcheff, $2,000 for "consulting." The payments to her uncle seemed generous, but Kenny insisted he did a lot of work, and I couldn’t prove he didn’t. But even then it seemed she was pretty free and easy with the campaign checkbook. Five years later we discovered she needed extra money herself, which made her more susceptible to welcoming bribes.

Back in 1998, the late Sen. Jack Regan paid his wife $1,000 a month for at least six months to help with his campaign. At the same time, Sen. Bob Coffin’s wife, Mary Hausch, received $3,500 for her consulting services, and Assemblyman Harry Mortensen paid his wife $1,000 for being his campaign manager.

It wasn’t illegal in 1998 and it’s not illegal now to pay your family, as long as the money doesn’t end up back in the candidate’s pocket.

You’re not supposed to use campaign donations for personal use, but the definition of personal use is loose. For instance, it’s OK to use political donations to buy clothes so that you’ll look smart on the Assembly floor.

Nobody audits the report; that’s left up to Nosy Parkers such as reporters and political rivals.

Brian Atkinson Turner received $83,000 from his mother’s campaign in 2004. His wife, Katie O’Gara, was paid $136,350, and their company, Advibe Advertising, was paid nearly $188,000. Now that’s for a campaign with almost no opposition.

In 2006, when Chris Giunchigliani was in a ferocious fight to unseat Commissioner Myrna Williams, she paid her husband, Gary Gray. But he has been a paid political consultant for 23 years. He had 11 clients in the 2006 election cycle. He said he charges his wife the same as any other client, even makes her sign a contract. Besides, it would look bad if she didn’t hire him.

My point here is that there are no restrictions on how much a family member can be paid, so despite the current investigation into the money that Turner’s mom paid him, which on its face looks like a full employment act, the practice alone isn’t illegal.

Judge Lee Gates also paid Advibe $2,600 in December 2005, a relatively unremarkable amount, except that he last ran in 2002. What is remarkable is that the judge returned $5,000 each to local attorney/lobbyist Jay Brown and his son, David Brown, on July 31, 2006. (The judge didn’t return a call Wednesday asking why he returned those contributions.)

Now if Turner didn’t pay taxes on the contributions he received from the commissioner and the judge, then he has a problem. If he returned some of it to his mother, that’s money laundering. Atkinson Gates’ finances are being looked at by Las Vegas police, the FBI and the IRS.

Atkinson Gates’ defense attorney, Stan Hunterton, had no comment Wednesday on the criminal investigation.

But as far as the basic concept of paying a family member, whether a professional or not, it’s just like kids whine: "But everybody’s doing it." Many do. But not all.

In 1998, when former Gaming Control Board member Scott Scherer was running for attorney general, his wife, Kay, was a $200-an-hour consultant for R&R Advertising who legitimately could have charged the campaign for her work.

Instead, she quit her job and didn’t pay herself anything for running her husband’s campaign. And her children didn’t get paid for their work on the Scherer campaign. The Scherer family is proof that some folks don’t have to be told to do the right thing.

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

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