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New campaign finance laws coming to Nevada in wake of abuses

CARSON CITY — New laws to tighten Nevada’s notoriously loose campaign finance statutes could be coming, in the wake of revelations that elected officials used campaign accounts to fund personal expenses, businesses or trips out of the country.

“I think that there will be legislation coming to address some of those issues,” said state Sen. James Orhenschall, D-Las Vegas, who chairs the upper chamber’s Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections.

As for specifics, Ohrenschall said that lawmakers and staff are “still working on it.”

These issues were highlighted recently by the Review-Journal, including how Las Vegas Councilwoman Michele Fiore has spent nearly $200,000 from her campaign account since she was elected in 2017 on things like gasoline, Uber rides, furniture for her city hall office and even her own business. She won’t face voters again until 2021.

Clark County Commissioner Lawrence Weekly, charged $1,100 to his campaign for a trip to Dallas with his daughter. Henderson Mayor Debra March, who like Fiore isn’t up for re-election for two more years, used her campaign money to fund trips to Panama and Napa Valley despite not raising any money.

But the most notable recent case of campaign finance abuse arose earlier this month when former Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson resigned from his seat and pleaded guilty to a federal wire fraud charge after misappropriating $250,000 in campaign donations for personal use, including opening a nightclub in Las Vegas and leasing a Jaguar SUV.

Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer, R-Minden, called those issues “rather troubling.”

And Settelmeyer has a bill that he hopes will curb some of the abuse.

Senate Bill 333, introduced Monday, would require anyone who gives $1,000 or more to any candidates or political action committees to report their donations to the Nevada secretary of state’s office if the check is cashed. Currently, only the candidates and PACs have to report the donations, and sponsors of the bill say that makes it too easy for candidates to pocket donations for personal gain.

“Right now it’s up to a candidate to report all contributions that they receive. But there’s no database on the other side as a check on the system to ensure that entities and individuals who provide contributions record those contributions,” said state Sen. Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, one of the of the bill’s other sponsors, which includes all eight Republican state senators.

“It’s important to increase transparency and accountability, and this would create a check on that system,” Gansert added.

Settelmeyer said the sponsors have been working on the bill since before news of Atkinson’s crimes and eventual resignation broke earlier this month. But he’s hoping the proposal would be able to prevent cases similar to Atkinson’s from happening in the future by requiring both sides of a campaign donation to report it.

The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections for further discussion.

Ohrenschall, the committee’s chairman, said that “there’s some merit” to the bill, but noted that he wants more discussion on it.

“I want to talk to the bill sponsor a little more, but I look forward to the hearing,” Ohrenschall said.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-3820. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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