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Old charges resurface against Tarkanian in House race

No doubt Danny Tarkanian’s role as a former member of Las Vegas’ beloved Runnin’ Rebels basketball team is an asset to his congressional campaign.

But the campaign of his political opponent, state Sen. Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, is betting Tarkanian’s role as a registered agent for companies that acted as fronts for fraudulent charities will offset good vibes voters have for the Republican’s basketball glory.

It’s a delicate dance for Democrats.

Tarkanian, son of former UNLV basket­ball coach Jerry Tarkanian, was never charged with breaking the law. And in 2009 he won a $150,000 libel settlement from another Democrat whose campaign tied Tarkanian directly to the fraud.

Democrats have so far made two attempts to bring up the old allegation.

A new Horsford campaign TV ad refers to “shady business dealings” and says, “Tarkanian worked for telemarketing scammers,” but it doesn’t elaborate.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee goes further, accusing Tarkanian of “helping to guide a teenager into criminal activity” and setting up a “business that bilked elderly people out of money.”

The DCCC version is tacked on the bottom of a broader negative description of Tarkanian on the Democrats’ general “Republican House of Scandal” website.

Attempts to revive the issue coincide with the final weeks of a campaign that is closer than Horsford might have imagined, given the hefty Democratic advantage in voter registration in the 4th Congressional District.

“I’m surprised it took this long, given that (Tarkanian) has the name recognition advantage,” said David Damore, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas political science professor. “If all people know is Tarkanian’s name, (Horsford backers) sort of need to give it a bad name.”

Horsford’s campaign argues that even if Tarkanian wasn’t implicated in criminal wrongdoing, he should have known better than to associate in any way with the firms.

“The company you keep determines the trouble you meet, and there is a clear pattern of irresponsibility that has plagued Danny throughout his personal and professional life,” said Tim Hogan, a spokesman for Horsford’s campaign. “He has been involved, as a businessman and lawyer, with at least 13 fraudulent charities.”

Tarkanian spokesman Ron Futrell said his role as a registered agent for troubled companies has been picked over by numerous opponents, and none established Tarkanian did anything wrong.

“It is ridiculous that this is being brought up again,” Futrell said. “Everyone knows what registered agents do. They have nothing to do with day-to-day operations of the company.”

A registered agent is a person or entity – often an attorney - who can accept legal documents and notifications from a state office on behalf of a corporate entity. The registered agent may or may not be involved with the actual management of the company, however.

Controversy over his past status as a registered agent for fraudulent charities has dogged Tarkanian throughout his political career. They were featured in Tarkanian’s 2004 legislative challenge of incumbent state Sen. Michael Schneider, D-Las Vegas, who later lost the court judgment, and in his 2006 race for secretary of state against Democrat Ross Miller. Tarkanian lost both races.

Tarkanian also lost in the 2010 Republican primary for U.S. Senate. His role as registered agent wasn’t a significant factor in that race.

The most pointed allegation raised by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has to do with Jan Wrobel, who in 1999 was sentenced to several years in federal prison for his role with Master Fundraising. Evans described the setup as one where telemarketers would solicit donations they said were for charity with false promises about prizes for donors. Tarkanian was the registered agent for the company; and the attorney who defended Wrobel said Tarkanian and Lee Wrobel, Jan’s father, bore much of the responsibility for wrongdoing even though they weren’t charged.

Jan Wrobel was appointed sole director of the company when he was just 18 in an attempt to protect the adults who created the firm, attorney Booker Evans said.

“I really felt the kid Wrobel got screwed by Danny and his father,” Evans said in an interview. Later, Evans added, “There are things that you don’t do as a lawyer, and as a lawyer you don’t put an 18-year-old in charge of a corporation.”

Jan Wrobel has declined comment. Lee Wrobel is deceased. Georgina Diane Wrobel, Jan’s mother, was also convicted.

In a sentencing memorandum on Jan Wrobel’s behalf, Evans argued for lighter-than-recommended punishment on the grounds that Tarkanian and Lee Wrobel used the younger man as a pawn.

“Not only was Mr. Wrobel subject to parental influence, but Danny Tarkanian, the attorney who ‘set up’ the businesses, either knew or should have known that Jan lacked the capacity to carry out most of the actions necessary to establish and operate the businesses,” Evans wrote. “To a great extent, Jan Wrobel was a pawn.”

Evans says the argument in the sentencing memorandum was convincing enough to the court that Jan Wrobel was sentenced to 84 months, three years less than the recommended 120 months.

Futrell dismissed Evans’ suggestion that Tarkanian bore any responsibility.

“That’s what an attorney is going to say to try to protect their client,” Futrell said. “That argument had no legs.”

Indeed, the Nevada Secretary of State’s office says it’s legal for an 18-year-old to be a director or corporate officer and that registered agents generally aren’t responsible for information provided by their customers.

“A registered agent takes the information given to them by the customer at face value, as we take business filings at face value,” said Secretary of State spokeswoman Catherine Lu.

University of Nevada, Reno, political science professor Eric Herzik said that even though Tarkanian has repeatedly fended off attacks about his record as an attorney, it’s no surprise they would surface again.

The recycled attacks, along with a recent $17 million judgment against Tarkanian stemming from a real estate deal gone bad, are a lot for voters to overlook, Herzik said.

“The problem for Tarkanian is there is too much old news. And it is linked to current news,” he said. “At a minimum it takes you off your message, at a maximum it raises questions about your honesty, your credibility.”

Polling shows the race is close, even though Democrats outnumber Republicans by 10 percentage points in the district.

A recent Las Vegas Review-Journal/8NewsNow poll showed Tarkanian leading 45 percent to 42 percent, within the margin of error of 3.9 percentage points.

While anything Horsford does to turn voters against Tarkanian could be significant in a close race, the Democrat has his own baggage to lug.

He has been criticized for parking in a handicapped spot, accepting a tropical junket from an online poker company with business before the Legislature and proposing to offer donors special access to legislators based on how much money they give, a plan that was abandoned before it was enacted.

Herzik said it means voters should expect the final weeks of the campaign to be ugly.

“That’s just the way politics is played now. You start at negative and go down from there.”

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at
bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285.

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