Ford should recuse himself in Atkinson case

Attorney General Aaron Ford’s friend has admitted to breaking numerous state laws. But Ford is refusing to say whether he’ll bring criminal charges.

That’s just one of the interesting angles stemming from former Democrat Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson’s fall from grace.

On Monday, Atkinson pleaded guilty to a federal wire fraud charge for stealing almost $250,000 in campaign contributions. It’s likely he stole more than $400,000, but shoddy record keeping made it impossible to determine an exact amount. Prosecutors want a 33-month sentence, while Atkinson’s lawyer could ask for probation.

When Atkinson resigned from the Senate last week, Ford tweeted: “I am deeply shocked and saddened by today’s revelations. The Kelvin Atkinson I know is dedicated to serving his community. He accepted responsibility and justice will take its course. My family is praying for him and his family during this difficult time.”

That would be an appropriate statement from a friend — except when that friend is the top law enforcement official in Nevada. Atkinson pleaded guilty to a federal crime, but he also admitted to violating numerous state laws.

It’s not “justice” that’s going to decide whether Atkinson faces state charges. It’s Ford. He has an obvious conflict. Atkinson was on Ford’s Senate leadership team in 2017. They were colleagues for six years. Ford should recuse himself from any decision on this issue.

I asked Ford if he would be prosecuting Atkinson. Ford said, “Man, don’t talk to me.”

Ford’s office also refused comment on whether he’ll recuse himself. That should be a no-brainer, but Ford’s silence speaks loudly enough. It’s screaming that he lacks the integrity to administer justice impartially.

Atkinson may not be the only elected official under scrutiny either.

“Let me thank the U.S. attorney for his tremendous leadership, not on just this case, but on all public corruption cases that he is overseeing in the district,” Tara Sullivan, special agent in charge IRS-criminal investigation, said at a Monday press conference.

That sounds like foreshadowing, especially because it led off her prepared remarks. Maybe it was clumsy verbiage or maybe the other investigations won’t lead to charges. But don’t be surprised if another elected official is found to have misused campaign funds.

Another interesting angle is that Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske’s office had known about the Atkinson matter since 2017. Because the AG’s office provides legal counsel to state agencies, it’s logical that then-Attorney General Adam Laxalt knew about it as well. Cegavske’s office wouldn’t comment and attempts to reach Laxalt were unsuccessful.

Both Cegavske and Laxalt are Republicans who went through heated election campaigns last year. Leaking this news could have helped them politically by tainting a prominent Democrat. But neither they nor their staff said anything. That reflects well on their character and professionalism. President Donald Trump could learn a thing or two from them.

Atkinson is gone from the Legislature, but questions stemming from his departure remain.

Listen to Victor Joecks discuss his columns each Monday at 9 a.m. with Kevin Wall on 790 Talk Now. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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