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‘Appearance of impropriety’: Nevada pours millions into nonprofits tied to state lawmakers

Updated October 29, 2023 - 10:07 am

At least 13 legislators had connections to organizations that received more than $33 million from the state this legislative session, prompting ethics concerns in Nevada.

More than 70 groups received over $110 million in state funding through Assembly Bill 525 and Senate Bill 341, legislation commonly referred to as “Christmas tree bills” which gift state funds to organizations for certain programs or initiatives.

Some of those lawmakers volunteered their time, while others were paid. Some say they haven’t held positions at organizations that received money in years or even decades, while others say they properly disclosed their roles.

But the legislators’ involvement, while not illegal, has raised questions about how nonprofits are vetted and how Nevada’s ethics laws operate.

Nevada’s Legislature operates part time, meaning lawmakers return to their jobs after the biennial, 120-day session. This often means potential conflicts of interest are common, political science experts say.

The legislators were told by the Legislative Counsel Bureau – the state staff that gives legal advice and does background research for legislators – they were in the clear to vote on the bills. In its view, legislators would not have been required to make disclosures on the record or abstain from voting because the bills impact most citizens in the state and don’t meet the standard for a disqualifying conflict of interest.

Nevada State Democratic Party spokesperson Stephanie Justice said in a statement to the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the bipartisan bills were broadly supported by legislative Republicans and Democrats and that the nonprofit organizations are doing “critical work feeding the homeless, advocating for children with disabilities, and providing resources to minority-owned small businesses.”

Despite being legal, those actions may still seem unethical in the eyes of the public, according to Carolyn Warner, chair and professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Warner compared it to Supreme Court justices accepting gifts and expensive vacations. While not technically violating the rules of the Supreme Court, “to the rest of us it kind of smacks of corruption,” she said.

Allocation process

Choosing which groups receive money – and how much – is a process undertaken nearly every legislative session. The only difference this session was just how much the state was able to give out, with its coffers flush with cash in a post-pandemic boom, according to Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno, D-North Las Vegas, who serves as the chair of the powerful Assembly Ways and Means Committee.

Monroe-Moreno said she was instrumental in the formation of the Christmas tree bills.

Lobbyists or representatives from the organizations pitched their groups to the Democratic assemblywoman throughout the legislative session, but not every organization was able to get funding despite efforts to do so, she said.

Monroe-Moreno and Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop, who serves as the chair of the corresponding Senate Finance Committee, then sat down and compared notes to determine which organizations would get money. The legislators looked at the work the organizations do in the community and the work they could be doing with additional funding, Monroe-Moreno said.

In order to receive funding, an organization had to be listed with the secretary of state’s office, she said. If they were not already a registered business or in the process of becoming one, they could not receive funds.

Monroe-Moreno formerly served as an executive board member at Gentlemen by Choice, an organization that received $25,000 through AB 525, but said she hadn’t served in that position since sometime between 2020 and 2021.

“I think it’s funny that when we give money to corporations, we don’t get all this interest, but money going to nonprofits that are doing amazing work in our communities is getting interest,” she said.

Legislators respond

Earlier this summer, the Review-Journal reported on two potential conflicts related to the legislation.

Assemblywoman Michelle Gorelow joined a nonprofit organization just a month after legislators voted to give it $250,000 in its first ever appropriation from the state, and Assemblyman Cameron “C.H.” Miller voted to give the Urban Chamber of Commerce $100,000 while also serving as president and CEO.

Miller disclosed his affiliation with the organization during an early committee hearing on the bill, but still voted to approve it. Miller, who recently announced his resignation to run for Las Vegas City Council, is also a board member of the Economic Opportunity Board of Clark County, which received $100,000.

Some legislators said they haven’t been affiliated with groups that got money in years.

Sen. Skip Daly, D-Sparks, previously served on the board of the United Way of Northern Nevada and the Sierra, which received $1.2 million. Daly said he hasn’t been part of the organization since 2000.

Sen. Carrie Buck, R-Henderson, told the Review-Journal that around 2014 she had served on the advisory board in an unpaid position for children’s literacy nonprofit Spread the Word — which received $500,000 — but has not been affiliated since. Buck voted against both bills.

Assemblywoman Erica Mosca, D-Las Vegas, said she had not held a paid position at Leaders in Training, a nonprofit supporting first-generation college students, since July 2022. Mosca, a founder and former executive director of the nonprofit, said she had left the board of directors in early 2023, and disclosed the affiliation on her financial disclosure.

Mosca is also an alumna of Teach for America — which received $25,000 through AB 525 and said she had been paid to do projects that support teachers and students in the past, but was not engaged in any paid projects for the organization currently or at the time of the vote.

Assemblywoman Selena Torres, D-Las Vegas, said she’s also “a proud alumnae” of Teach for America but hasn’t been affiliated with the organization since 2019 and said she has never been a paid employee.

Other lawmakers also say they receive no financial benefit from their role at the organizations.

Assemblywoman Shea Backus, D-Las Vegas, said she does pro bono work for the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, providing legal services free of charge to multiple programs, including the center’s Children’s Attorneys Project and its Ask-A-Lawyer events.

Legislators who are employed by organizations that received money said they properly disclosed the conflict.

Assemblywoman Venicia Considine, D-Las Vegas, currently serves as the director of development and community relations at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada. In an email, Considine said she properly disclosed her connection to the center in her financial disclosure and said she had no part in advocating for funding in the bills.

Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May, D-Las Vegas, who serves as board member at the Arc of Nevada and is employed at Opportunity Village as its chief administrative officer, said she did not advocate for any appropriation for her organizations, which focus on providing resources for people with disabilities. She also disclosed her potential conflict during a June 1 hearing on AB 525.

Some lawmakers did not return multiple requests for comment, including Sen. Dondero Loop.

In mid-September, Dondero Loop, D-Las Vegas, had listed her affiliation with the United Way of Southern Nevada as “current” on her bio on the Legislature’s website. The line later disappeared from her bio, just days after the Review-Journal inquired about her connections to the group.

Assemblywoman Bea Duran, D-Las Vegas, has worked for the Culinary Union for more than two decades. The Culinary Academy — a hospitality training institute in partnership with the Culinary Union, Bartenders Unions and nearly 30 Strip properties — received $25 million. Duran could not be reached for comment.

Sen. Dina Neal, D-North Las Vegas, is listed as an advisory board member of the Uplift Foundation of Nevada, a nonprofit which received $10,000. Neal could not be reached for comment.

Accountability in Nevada

Legislators voting for a bill that directly gives funds to their organizations without the requirement of abstaining has prompted concerns about the ethics process in Nevada and who – if anyone – is responsible for holding legislators accountable.

For one, the legislative branch is exempt from public records law. In 2015, lawmakers approved a bill cementing immunity for legislators, which shields their calendars, emails and communications from public records requests.

Lawmakers are required to submit financial disclosure statements to the secretary of state, but only for their financial interests from the previous year.

Miller, for example, became president and CEO of the Urban Chamber of Commerce in January 2023. On Jan. 17, he filed his disclosure without that most recent job title, but he was not required to do so. He would have been required to disclose his role with the Urban Chamber in January 2024 – roughly seven months after he voted for AB 525.

Citizens can file an ethics complaint against a lawmaker with the Nevada Commission on Ethics, but it’s unlikely to go anywhere. The Nevada Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that a legislator’s conduct and any discipline is under the sole jurisdiction of each house of the Legislature.

A separate legislative ethics commission existed until 1985, when it was combined with an ethics commission meant for executive branch officials.

In the Assembly, that jurisdiction lies with the Assembly Select Committee on Ethics, which hears complaints on specific questions of alleged breaches of ethics and conflicts of interest, but it is unclear how often the committee hears complaints.

Speaker Steve Yeager, who vice chairs the committee, did not return multiple requests for comment about the committee’s process and how often they investigate complaints.

“The Nevada laws are robust and take into account the fact that we are, indeed, a citizen legislative body,” Brown-May said.

But other states operate differently.

Ethics in other states

Like Nevada, Colorado’s legislature meets on a part-time basis, so most lawmakers have full-time jobs outside of their elected position.

A lawmaker that has a personal or private interest in any measure pending before the legislature must disclose that conflict and can’t vote on the bill. A conflict exists if the passage or failure of the bill would result in the legislator receiving a greater benefit than others in their field, said Aly Belknap, Executive Director of Colorado Common Cause.

“Almost all of them have at least one additional financial interest. It can be hard, I think, with so little oversight and capacity to do oversight to draw a clear line between what’s acceptable and what isn’t,” Belknap said.

In Utah and Idaho, lawmakers are required to declare a potential conflict of interest but can still vote on a bill. In Utah, a lawmaker who does not disclose a conflict could be faced with a Class B misdemeanor and could face the Legislative Ethics Commission, according to Jennifer Seelig, director of the Institute of Government and Politics at Utah State University.

California legislators abide by the Fair Political Practices Act, which says that all public officials have to avoid any actual or perceived conflicts of private or financial interests, according to John Pelissero, senior scholar in Government Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics for Santa Clara University in California.

If any state legislators have any kind of private or financial interest in a piece of legislation, they need to recuse themselves from voting on it, Pelissero said.

A complaint can be issued with California’s Fair Political Practices Commission — the state’s ethics arbiter — which then investigates and has authority to issue decisions and penalties.

But Pelissero said there are really two steps a responsible legislator can take: Be transparent and disclose their association with an organization, and ultimately not vote on the bill.

Striking a balance

Accountability can come in the form of the voting booth where the public can choose to remove elected officials, but by the time legislators are up for re-election, these ethical issues won’t be a central topic, Warner said.

“Ethics and corruption are seldom the reason politicians don’t get re-elected,” she said. Often people vote for their party, or a particular issue they are interested in.

One of the problems is that legislatures write the rules that govern themselves, she said.

A ballot initiative to amend Nevada’s ethics regulations can be a possible solution, but Warner said it can be difficult to start a public movement that gets enough attention to make effective rule changes.

Meanwhile, Gov. Joe Lombardo has called on the Legislature to be more transparent and accessible to the public.

“From public meeting laws to public records laws, the Legislature should hold itself to the same standards it expects from everyone else,” he said in a statement to the Review-Journal. “Sunshine is government’s greatest disinfectant, and the Legislature should no longer be allowed to operate under the cover of darkness.”

In its 2023 annual report, the Nevada Commission on Ethics said it was considering other policy options for the 2025 legislative session that could make improvements, such as working with legislators to assist them with their own bill regarding ethics jurisdiction.

But there’s a balance that has to be struck when states try to decide how to ensure transparency, said Stephanie Witt, a professor at the Boise State University School of Public Service. If reporting requirements for potential conflicts are too onerous, it may discourage some from running at all.

“I think every state has to grapple with what that balance is and how they’re going to do it,” Witt said.

Part of that can be remedied by making information about a lawmaker’s connections and financial interests easy for the public to obtain and review. In Utah, legislators have their conflict of interest forms linked on their legislative biographies, according to Seelig with Utah State.

“Have that information easily accessible to your mom, to my mom, to my next door neighbor who barely gets on a computer so it’s intuitive,” she said.

But even if a violation of state ethics law hasn’t occurred, the appearance of one can hurt the public’s trust.

“In the public sector, we have to live with the damage that can come from the appearance of impropriety,” Witt said. “If it looks bad, it’s bad, and citizens continue to lose trust in our governmental institutions.”

Contact Taylor Avery at tavery@reviewjournal.com. Follow her at @travery98 on X. Contact Jessica Hill at jehill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @jess_hillyeah on X.

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