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About that Seniors United endorsement …

In a state all too familiar with ethics lapses by public officials, politicians buying meals for old folks hardly seems like a scandal.

But little things matter in elections, and that’s why so many Nevada candidates and incumbents tout the endorsement of an organization called Seniors United. Each campaign season, the endorsement is listed on mailers, fliers and websites and mentioned in speeches and interactions with voters.

However, political endorsements aren’t always what they seem, as I pointed out in my July 1 column, “How to get a union endorsement.” And if candidates believe the support of Seniors United can help them win election, voters at least deserve to know what’s behind the endorsement.

Seniors United sounds important enough. The name suggests a sizable coalition of retirees involved in large-scale advocacy and lobbying.

In fact, the organization is quite small. It has no public office, no listing in the phone book, no website and no email address. Its mailing address is a tiny rented slot inside AAA Mail Box, next to the Vons supermarket on the southwest corner of Twain Avenue and Maryland Parkway.

In addition to issuing endorsements, the group’s activities largely boil down to producing newsletters and having lunch meetings with guest speakers at the Clark County Library on East Flamingo Road.

How does the group pay for those newsletters and luncheons? Partly with $10 annual member dues, but mostly with contributions from politicians.

The cover of the most recent newsletter, from last month, is a tribute to those public figures who pay the bills. The group’s nine “Corporate Members” – a designation that costs $150 per year – are all elected officials. One of them, state Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, also happened to be the speaker and lunch sponsor for the organization’s June meeting.

The list of more than 50 “Corporate Sponsors” includes 25 current or former judges, 18 other current or former elected officials, a handful of candidates and former candidates for office and spouses. Among them: Supreme Court Justice Michael Douglas, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, former Rep. Dina Titus and state Treasurer Kate Marshall. Only one company was listed among the “Corporate Members” or “Corporate Sponsors”: campaign consulting firm Organized Karma.

Typically, unions and other groups distribute detailed questionnaires to candidates and schedule interviews to discuss specific issues. After that process is finished – or after a candidate fails to respond by a deadline – an endorsement is issued. The Review-Journal editorial board’s endorsements are based on half-hour interviews with candidates (currently under way), their backgrounds and their voting records. They are not based on whether candidates place ads in the newspaper or on its website.

Seniors United President Jerry Johnson said his outfit does not reach out to the scores of candidates who file for office. Instead, they expect candidates to contact them, and the group accepts donations and sponsorships from those candidates.

“We want them to come to our meetings and meet our members,” Johnson said. “Generally, we want candidates to come to at least two of our meetings. … At times, we’ve let our members vote on endorsements, but this year, our board issued the endorsements.”

It’s common practice for candidates to provide on their websites links to copies of their endorsement letters as proof of the political support. All of the endorsement letters from Seniors United that I could find were dated April 3 – just after the close of candidate filing. In these cases, rivals never had a chance to attend a Seniors United lunch. The deal was sealed.

Johnson said about 1,000 people typically get Seniors United newsletters. But lunch meetings at the library draw considerably fewer people. One campaign proxy told me, on condition of anonymity, that in the run-up to the 2010 election, candidates outnumbered Seniors United members at luncheons.

“Many citizens rely on these citizen groups and on what they believe is a fair endorsement process based on some criteria, supposedly related to senior issues in this case,” said Martin Dean Dupalo, president of the Nevada Center for Public Ethics. “In the absence of interviews and/or questionnaires, the only nexus on the face of it here is money or ‘sponsorship,’ access, followed by an endorsement. If true, if this is a political quid pro quo, it is a highly unethical practice perpetrated upon seniors and the public.

“But that is only part of it. Consider the politicians, both elected and candidates, who knowingly are gaming the political system here with contributions and a wink of the eye, deceiving the public at large, including a large segment of seniors who rely on this.”

According to campaign contribution and expense reports filed with secretary of state’s office, Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, is the biggest candidate donor to Seniors United: $950 since 2010. I asked her if she felt she had purchased her endorsement.

“No. They do a great job of getting people in front of seniors to educate them about issues” from Medicaid to raising grandchildren, she said. “I help pay for the distribution of the newsletter because I think it’s a benefit to my constituents.”

Johnson said there are policy goals and values behind Seniors United’s endorsements, most importantly “social services and programs that protect the quality of life of senior citizens and make their lives easier.” The group has endorsed a few Republicans, including Rep. Joe Heck and Assembly members John Hambrick and Melissa Woodbury, but the lion’s share of its support goes to Democrats. Of all the current and former partisan office holders listed among the group’s Corporate Members and Corporate Sponsors, just one is a Republican: ex-Clark County District Attorney David Roger.

“I think Democrats are probably more aware of senior issues … but I believe we are a fair organization,” Johnson said.

So do they sell their endorsements? “Of course not,” Johnson said. “That’s not it at all. There are plenty of people we’ve endorsed who haven’t sponsored us.” But are there sponsors who aren’t endorsed? Doesn’t look like it.

There are a lot of nice people associated with Seniors United, and a lot of good elected officials – Kirkpatrick among them – have received endorsements from the group. But the reality of the group’s endorsements, for any voter who might use them as an election guide, is that they’re rooted in an ethical gray area.

If Seniors United wants to give its endorsements some credibility, it needs to stop accepting money from candidates. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV.

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