Openness and due process

The ripples from improper room remodeling projects at Harrah’s Entertainment hotels have expanded to envelop the companies that completed the work. Last week, Clark County officials filed four complaints with the Nevada State Contractors Board over the renovations, which were done without permits or adequate code inspections.

However, had Clark County not submitted the complaints, the public might not have found out they existed. A new state law makes such complaints the confidential property of the board until a hearing takes place. So even as a county spokeswoman announced the filings, a contractors board spokesman refused to acknowledge they existed.

The dueling statements highlight the seriousness and stupidity of secrecy in government. As an inquiry looks into whether Harrah’s Entertainment, Clark County building officials and contractors knowingly allowed substandard remodeling — work that could have put guest safety at risk — the state agency charged with investigating and disciplining builders is now required by law to keep taxpayers in the dark about complaints that are of utmost public interest.

In the past, the contractors board would provide, upon request, a written copy of a contractor’s five-year history that included completed investigations, disciplinary actions and pending inquiries. But the new law, which took effect May 31, allows the board to release only the disciplinary actions taken against a contractor.

Now if a contractor resolves a complaint with an unhappy client before the case goes to a disciplinary hearing, the complaint is forever sealed as though it never existed.

During this year’s legislative session, the board brought a bill that would have put into statute the requirement that complaints against a contractor over the previous five years be made available to the public.

Such a policy arms consumers with information. It lets them ask pointed questions of licensed contractors in determining which company to hire.

But the board’s effort was undermined by the Associated Builders and Contractors of Las Vegas, whose president happens to be Republican state Sen. Warren Hardy.

That organization wanted pending complaints and investigations kept confidential on the absurd argument that competing contractors might hire their rivals for various jobs, pay them for some work, then file frivolous actions against them to sabotage their businesses. They maintained that secrecy protects contractors’ due process rights. Inexplicably, the Legislature and Gov. Jim Gibbons agreed and approved the bill.

They had some precedent. Judges, of all people, are afforded the same secrecy when complaints are filed against them.

In fact, openness is the greatest guarantor of due process. Openness allows the accused to present evidence and defend themselves. Openness exposes false accusers for the frauds they are, providing a serious disincentive to anyone who might fabricate allegations. Openness gives the taxpaying public the assurance that all complaints receive the same scrutiny, and that those with wealth or political power don’t receive special treatment — or outright exoneration — behind closed doors.

Openness has worked in our criminal justice system for more than two centuries. It works for licensed professionals and businesses as well.

The Legislature has some repairs to make when it convenes in February 2009: passing a law that gets complaints against contractors out of the shadows and back into the sunshine.

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