EDITORIAL: Nevada agencies use taxpayer money to fight the taxpayers

Once again, Nevada taxpayers are left holding the bill after a state or local agency determined it was beyond public scrutiny.

This time, it’s the Clark County district attorney’s office. Back in 2014, the Review-Journal was forced to sue to gain access to documents detailing the DA’s practice of compensating witnesses in criminal cases. As part of a legal settlement filed last week in District Court, the county must reveal information about such benefits — and pay the RJ $55,000 in attorney fees.

To sum it up: The taxpayer-funded prosecutor’s office sought to conceal from taxpayers certain payments it made with taxpayer money — and then eventually cut a deal that will cost the taxpayers $55,000.

“This is a really great win for transparency in Nevada,” said Amy Rose, the ACLU’s Nevada legal director. “It’s also a great win for ensuring criminal defendants have their constitutional rights protected.”

Indeed it is. But wouldn’t it have been easier — and cheaper — for those in the DA’s office to simply have made the information available in the first place? Instead, the default setting is always to retreat to the shadows and make liberal use of other people’s money to fight against open government.

But don’t think the DA’s office is the only offender.

For instance, the state Public Employees Retirement System has spent thousands in taxpayer funds to prevent those very same taxpayers from learning the specifics about pension payments to former public employees. Never mind that this information is widely available in most states, including California. System attorneys — paid by taxpayers — are determined to keep those who foot the bills in the dark the about how their money is being used. The case is pending at the Nevada Supreme Court.

Then there’s the Clark County coroner’s office. Autopsy reports are not exempted from the state’s open records laws, yet the coroner went to court on the taxpayer dime to argue such documents should be confidential. In January, a local judge rejected the coroner’s arguments and ordered the office to pay about $32,000 in legal fees to the RJ — courtesy of taxpayers, of course.

Finally, local officials up in Lyon County recently lost a state Supreme Court case in which they essentially argued they should be free to conduct government business in secret on their personal electronic devices. Guess who picked up the tab for their ill-advised legal battle?

There have been scores of other examples over the decades that highlight how state and local officials are far too quick to raid taxpayer-funded accounts to finance litigation that is at war with the public interest. Instead of continuing down this worn old road, they should reverse course and take a step toward rebuilding public confidence in our governmental institutions by eschewing their instinctive penchant for secrecy and embracing transparency and accountability.

That would save plenty of taxpayer money, too.

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