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EDITORIAL: City’s videogate smacks of a cover-up

Once again, the innate tendency of government officials to scurry for the shadows rather than embrace transparency is on full display in Southern Nevada. The latest public agency to flout the state’s open records law is the city of Las Vegas.

Last week, the Review-Journal’s Jeff German reported that city officials had dragged their feet to avoid complying with a records request from the newspaper involving information — including video — of a physical altercation between two members of the City Council. In the interim, City Hall surveillance footage that likely caught the confrontation was apparently deleted.

The city’s actions smack of a cover-up and deserve to be investigated.

The incident in question took place Jan. 11 between council members Michele Fiore and Victoria Seaman. The two had exchanged words during a meeting, and the dust-up spilled over into a private second floor hallway behind the council chambers. Mr. German reported last month that Ms. Seaman claims Ms. Fiore broke her finger, grabbed her hair and slammed her to the ground.

Since the incident, Ms. Seaman has had her attorneys send Ms. Fiore a cease-and-desist order, threatening a lawsuit unless she stops what the missive describes as bullying. “These past and ongoing actions are unwanted, unwelcome and have become unbearable,” the letter states. “This conduct is pervasive and rises to the level of infliction of emotional distress, not to mention escalation to physical violence, assault and battery.”

Clearly, the soap opera now playing at City Hall — in addition to an ongoing FBI investigation into Ms. Fiore’s handling of campaign cash — is of importance to taxpayers given that it has the potential to disrupt the council’s ability to conduct business in an orderly manner.

Yet city officials slow-played the Review-Journal’s Feb. 9 request for surveillance video before releasing footage showing the two women outside a seventh-floor elevator that revealed nothing remarkable. The paper narrowed the request on Feb. 25 to include only security camera coverage of the argument in question. In response on March 4, a deputy city attorney said that having a single staffer review 2,000 hours of surveillance footage would cost the paper $63,680.

After the Review-Journal began to pursue the matter again months later, city attorney Bryan Scott told the paper, “It is my understanding that the city’s video surveillance system recordings are deleted automatically by the surveillance system after 60 calendar days.”

What a crock. While it may be the city’s practice to delete routine footage after two months, the video in question was anything but routine. It potentially captured criminal conduct, and city officials knew it was the subject of a public records request. Allowing its destruction amounts to willful malfeasance.

“Nevada’s public records law requires government officials to help requesters find what they’re looking for,” Richard Karpel, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, told Mr. German. “Moreover, local governments can be fined for willful violations of the law. For those reasons, the city of Las Vegas should be very, very nervous about what happened here.”

Defense attorney Todd Leventhal, a former prosecutor, also told Mr. German that he smells a rat. “Somebody’s trying to conceal something here that clearly is of public interest,” he said. “City marshals were obligated to go down and seize that video for any future civil or criminal proceedings.”

Indeed, if the city is still sitting on the video, it must release it immediately. If not … well, there’s a reason media outlets insisted that state statutes include consequences for those who purposely disregard laws designed to promote representative democracy by ensuring that taxpayers have access to public records. This case cries out for sanctions.

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