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What are they hiding? County withholds records about ex-official

Updated June 22, 2023 - 4:19 pm

Deputy County Manager Jeff Wells failed to address problems in departments under his watch and allowed his son and daughter-in-law to be hired at departments he oversaw.

Wells was suspended in January for intervening in his son’s discipline, and taxpayers paid him about $70,000 while he was on administrative leave.

He retired this month. But county officials repeatedly have refused to release any records about the Wells investigation, and they reneged on a promise to discuss the issue after the investigation was closed.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal wants the personnel records to determine what they are hiding.

County officials claim that their internal policies and a court ruling allow them to balance the privacy of employees against the public’s right to know, but recent changes to the Nevada Public Records Act and Nevada Supreme Court rulings require the release of the documents.

The newspaper’s chief legal officer, Ben Lipman, wrote a letter to the county disputing the justification for withholding the personnel records, which are not exempt from release under the state’s public records law.

Lipman pointed out the legislative changes and new rulings that supersede the decision the county cited. He also wrote that a Nevada Supreme Court ruling prevents governments from withholding public records based on their own ordinances or policies.

“We ask that there be no further delay and that you provide the records promptly,” he wrote April 14.

History of problems

Jeff Wells was placed on paid leave Jan. 23 after he discussed his son’s discipline with a county attorney, county records and emails from Jeff Wells show.

Tom Wells was working at the Clark County public defender’s office after having been hired when his father oversaw the office. And Jeff Wells’ daughter-in-law was hired at the Department of Family Services when he oversaw that department.

State law prohibits top officials from hiring relatives, but Wells, in emails to the Review-Journal, wrote that the law was not clear until a county ordinance specifically prohibited the hiring of relatives of top managers. The ordinance passed after Wells’ family was hired and grandfathered in his son and daughter-in-law.

Over the past five years, Jeff Wells also oversaw at least four departments where Review-Journal investigations exposed serious problems, including sexual harassment allegations at the public defender’s office, repeated failures at the Clark County coroner’s office, the theft of more than $80,000 in county money by then-Henderson Constable Earl Mitchell and workplace misconduct by then-Public Administrator Robert Telles.

Telles is now accused of fatally stabbing Review-Journal reporter Jeff German in retaliation for a series of articles German wrote about his conduct toward subordinates.

After Jeff Wells was placed on leave, a county spokeswoman promised an interview with County Manager Kevin Schiller about the issue.

“Jeff Wells is on paid administrative leave due to the ongoing investigative HR process,” spokeswoman Jennifer Cooper wrote March 23. “Kevin (Schiller) will be able to speak with you when the HR process reaches a conclusion.”

County refuses interview

Jeff Wells retired April 13, and Cooper confirmed that the investigative process ended with his retirement.

But she, nevertheless, refused a request for an interview, saying there are other human resources processes ongoing. She did not elaborate on the processes.

“Kevin’s interview with the RJ will not just be on this,” she wrote April 13. “I’ll reach out to (Executive Editor) Glenn (Cook) about an editorial board interview when we are in a position to do so as Clark County has many initiatives of importance on behalf of the residents we serve.”

This is not the first time Schiller refused to answer questions about issues at the county, including his own questionable actions.

Last year, Schiller did not respond to repeated requests for interviews about a story showing he improperly used county airport parking cards for personal trips. He reimbursed the airport for the parking after the Review-Journal requested his parking data.

He also failed to respond when the Review-Journal wanted to ask him whether his car allowance helped pay for a fleet of high-end personal cars, including an Audi and Porsche.

Cooper denied that the county was violating records laws or going back on her promise to make Schiller available for an interview.

“Clark County continues to honor our processes, relevant both to our HR investigative process as well as our public records request process,” she wrote Wednesday. “I am in receipt of Mr. Lipman’s argument, and have provided it to the District Attorney’s Office, which will respond as deemed appropriate.”

The “What Are They Hiding?” column was created to educate Nevadans about transparency laws, inform readers about Review-Journal coverage being stymied by bureaucracies, and shame public officials into being open with the hardworking people who pay all of government’s bills. Were you wrongly denied access to public records? Share your story with us at whataretheyhiding@reviewjournal.com.

Contact Arthur Kane at akane@reviewjournal.com and follow @ArthurMKane on Twitter. Kane is editor of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing.

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