EDITORIAL: Ethics and accountability

If violations of state ethics laws are never punished, what’s the point in having ethics laws? If violators can cut deals before an ethics investigation even starts, why have an Ethics Commission?

The Nevada Commission on Ethics wagged its finger at a pair of Clark County School District officials who clearly used public resources to campaign for a 2012 tax increase, in violation of the law. On Nov. 20, the commission approved what amounted to plea bargains from School Board President Carolyn Edwards and Associate Superintendent Joyce Haldeman, who admitted to “unwillful” violations that they said resulted from bad advice from counsel. In return, the commission issued no discipline and halted proceedings that might have gotten to the bottom of emails, sent from school district accounts, that sought campaign volunteers and directed them to call the system’s Community and Government Relations office.

For nearly two decades, ignorance of the law has been a winning strategy before the Ethics Commission. It tends to be less effective before city, county, state and federal prosecutors.

Martin Dean Dupalo, president of the Nevada Center for Public Ethics and a former School Board candidate, points out that a full hearing before the Ethics Commission could have uncovered whether the district had taken steps to set up a campaign headquarters, as the emails seemed to suggest. The ballot question, which would have increased property taxes on a typical Las Vegas home by more than $100 per year to fund school construction, was rejected by voters.

Based on that vote alone, the taxpaying public deserves an accounting of how school district officials tried to drum up support for the initiative when state law explicitly prohibits using public resources to do so. As it is, Nevada governments use public resources to lobby for tax increases every legislative session. In this instance, taxpayers paid for legal representation for Ms. Edwards and Ms. Haldeman, and the case went away.

“There are a lot of challenges faced by public officials,” Commission Chairman Paul Lamboley said. Nothing to see here. Move along, everyone.

However, in response to that whitewash, another ethics complaint has been filed against School Board Trustees Deanna Wright and Erin Cranor, with similar emails at the core of the case. Considering the School Board is expected to start discussions next month on a construction tax plan and ballot question for 2014, how the Ethics Commission handles this complaint could go a long way in teaching the school district a lesson on the law. The public deserves a full investigation.

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