Former Democratic state Assemblyman Morse Arberry was right to plead guilty to a violation of state ethics laws recently, and the Nevada Ethics Commission was right to impose a $750 fine on him for the willful violation.
Arberry, while still a lawmaker, created a lobbying company, negotiated and signed a lobbying contract with the Clark County courts. He did so despite state laws against conflicts and public officials entering into government contracts that could benefit them. He resigned from the Legislature the day the contract appeared for approval on the Clark County Commission’s agenda. (It was ultimately rejected by commissioners.)
Arberry was at the tail end of a career in public service that began in 1984, and he’d served in his last full legislative session. Had he waited another six months — or if he’d quit his elected job before seeking the lobbying contract — he’d have had no problem.
To his credit, Arberry didn’t fight the charges, deny responsibility or drag out the proceedings. Justice was done in Arberry’s case.
But what about all the others?
State law is unmistakably clear: “A public office is a public trust, and shall be held for the sole benefit of the people. A public officer or employee must commit himself or herself to avoid conflicts between the private interests of the public officer and those of the general public whom the public officer or employee serves.”
Nobody filed a formal complaint against Republican state Sen. Mark Amodei, who during the 2007 Legislature told a mining lobbyist “I might be good” for the open position as head of the Nevada Mining Association. (Amodei served as vice-chairman of the Senate’s Natural Resources Committee at the time.) He applied for and won the job after the session, and served for a short time as both senator and head of a special interest association, before eventually stepping down from the mining job.
There was a very detailed complaint filed against Republican former state Sen. Warren Hardy, who similarly served as head of the Associated Builders and Contractors during his term. The Legislative Counsel Bureau defended Hardy by arguing the state Ethics Commission has no authority to make rules about the “core legislative functions” of elected officials — i.e., policing their votes — and the state Supreme Court agreed.
Nobody complained to the state Ethics Commission when former Republican Las Vegas Councilwoman Lynette Boggs accepted a position on the Station Casinos board, despite the fact that several Station-owned properties were inside city limits. And nobody complained when Democratic Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins took a job lobbying for an entity owned by developer Harvey Whittemore, despite the fact Collins serves on the Southern Nevada Water Authority board that may be called upon to rule on Whittemore’s land holdings.
Amodei, Hardy, Boggs and Collins all noted they would abstain from votes that would constitute conflicts. But each of them created conflicts where none existed by seeking outside employment, which not only ignores state law, but disenfranchises constituents, too.
And don’t forget current Democratic Las Vegas Councilman Steve Ross tempted fate when he sought election as secretary treasurer of the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council, a job sure to overlap with his public duties. The state Ethics Commission warned him of the pitfalls, but Ross later found himself back before the board, which ruled he’d violated laws with votes on the construction of a new Las Vegas City Hall.
His punishment? Nothing, since the commission ruled the violations weren’t “willful” — even though Ross had been discouraged from seeking the union job in the first place.
Oh, and Ross is running for Las Vegas mayor this cycle.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist. His column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/SteveSebelius or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.