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An uber-stretch

Did former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto take money to kill Uber, costing Nevadans jobs? That’s what a new political attack ad claims.

The ad, by the Koch Brothers-funded Freedom Partners Action Fund, takes some true statements and stretches them like saltwater taffy into a delicious, sticky candy bar of lies.

“In a tough economy, a paycheck can mean everything to your family,” the ad begins, over gauzy videos of parents taking care of their kids. “Many Nevadans relied on Uber for work. But after accepting over $70,000 from taxi companies, Catherine Cortez Masto went after Uber.”

As it turns out, Cortez Masto did accept thousands of dollars in contributions from various transportation companies — back when she was running for office in 2006 and again in 2010. But that was years before Uber started operating in Nevada. One taxi company lobbyist allowed that, in 2010, no one in the industry had even heard of Uber, much less given money to elected officials based on their fear of the company.

The ad cleverly implies — but doesn’t directly say — that Cortez Masto took action based on the contributions she received from taxi companies, which is false. But you’d have to understand the huge gap in the timeline to know that.

Next, when Uber started operating in Nevada in late 2014, it did so without government sanction. (For those who don’t know, Uber uses a smartphone app to connect passengers with drivers vetted by the company, allowing people to pay for rides electronically. The company insists it’s a social media platform, not a transportation company, so it doesn’t need any stinkin’ permits, or words to that effect.)

The only problem? The Nevada Taxicab Authority disagreed, and immediately began conducting sting operations on Uber drivers and even impounding their cars. The agency is represented by the attorney general’s office, which is how Cortez Masto got involved. She decided to seek an injunction to stop the company from operating until the legal issues were resolved, and the authority’s board voted to endorse her legal strategy.

That’s why the ad says this: “Once, twice, three times [Cortez Masto went after Uber] until she drove them out of town, along with all their jobs.”

In fact, a Carson City judge looked at the facts and concluded that Uber was operating in violation of the law. He issued an injunction, and the company stopped operating in the state as a result. Ultimately, however, Uber lobbied for a change in the law at the Nevada Legislature’s 2015 session and received permission to operate. Uber and other so-called transportation network companies now operate legally in the state.

That’s right: The companies are still here, along with all their jobs.

The ad’s final line: “She put campaign donors ahead of Nevadans, and protected special interests instead of us.”

No, she didn’t.

You can argue that the laws governing the transportation industry are entirely geared toward protecting existing taxis and limos from competition. You can argue that taxi regulators are too captive to the industry they oversee. You can even argue that Uber should have been allowed to operate without any government regulation, on the grounds that no one was being harmed (aside from taxi company profits).

But you can’t argue that Cortez Masto did anything even remotely wrong: A state agency represented by her office presented evidence that Uber was operating illegally. She concurred. (Later, so would a District Court judge.) If she’d ignored the issue, she could have been accused of abdicating her duty.

And can you imagine that attack ad?

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and co-host of “PoliticsNOW,” airing at 5:30 p.m. Sundays on 8NewsNow. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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