A federal judge who described Clark County commissioners as “acting corruptly” when they chose a higher-bidding union shop struck a sensitive nerve in an elected body shadowed by a history of malfeasance.
Commissioners today will discuss in a closed session whether the county should appeal U.S. District Judge Robert Jones’ order to award Fisher Sand and Gravel a contract to widen the northern Las Vegas Beltway between Decatur Boulevard and Tenaya Way. The county has about two weeks left to challenge the order, issued Jan. 5.
The county’s legal staff told commissioners not to discuss the case publicly. But several commissioners stunned by Jones’ barb felt compelled to respond. Commissioner Tom Collins was especially irked.
“When Judge Jones has no legal grounds to impede the Clark County Commission, then he calls us names to try to justify his improper action,” Collins said. “The reason he’s calling us names is that he doesn’t have enough confidence in what he’s doing … and he’s not a very professional person to be out there calling us names.”
Commissioner Susan Brager said the judge’s comment was unwarranted.
“I’m absolutely not corrupt,” Brager said. “There is no corruption in me. There never has been; there never will be.”
Not so long ago, the commission was plagued by scandal.
In 2003, former Commissioners Dario Herrera, Erin Kenny, Mary Kincaid-Chauncey and Lance Malone were caught up in a high-profile corruption case that involved bribes paid by strip club owner Michael Galardi. They were later sentenced to federal prison.
The judge’s rancorous remark is the latest volley in a bidding war that puts the commission between Fisher and Las Vegas Paving. Commissioners awarded Las Vegas Paving the contract twice, even though it bid $4.6 million more for the job than Fisher did.
Fisher’s attorney, Stan Parry, has argued that commissioners have a pro-union bias and rejected Fisher because it was nonunion. Jones ordered the county in September to reconsider the bids, but with Commissioners Collins and Steve Sisolak sitting out.
By November, commissioners, impatient with the court battles, voted to scrap the Beltway project and all bids. They decided to scale down the road-widening, add an interchange on Fifth Street and start bidding from scratch.
Two weeks ago, Jones lambasted the commission for rejecting all bids, saying they had defied his order. He said they had shown a tacit bias for a union contractor and had acted corruptly.
“I’m really disappointed that he would use his pulpit as a federal judge to take a potshot at the commission,” Sisolak said. “I think it’s inappropriate to make these kinds of inflammatory comments.”
Sisolak said it also sets a dangerous precedent for a judge to overrule an elected body at will.
Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said the judge made “an unfortunate choice of words” and was wrong in accusing the board of bias.
A union supporter, Giunchigliani insisted that it made no difference in this case whether a shop was union or not.
“It’s absolutely erroneous in my opinion,” she said. “There was absolutely no fact or basis to back it up.”
Contact reporter Scott Wyland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-455-4519.