December 1, 2002
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal
code faces abolishment
By JAN MOLLER
When Las Vegas became the first Nevada city to adopt its own ethics
code in 1991, the City Council was recovering from a political scandal
and the state Ethics Commission had a reputation for taking a long time
to resolve complaints.
When the City Council strengthened its code in 1993, officials
applauded themselves for passing one of the toughest and most
progressive codes in the country.
Nine years later, the council is again
recovering from scandal. But this time, officials say the city code has
become a tool for political opportunists and want it abolished.
On Wednesday, the council will vote on a bill sponsored by Mayor Oscar
Goodman to abolish the city's ethics code except provisions that deal
with lobbying and political activities of public officials. Las Vegas
remains the only city in Nevada with its own code of ethics and its own
panel that hears complaints and issues rulings.
Several current and former elected officials say the bill is long
overdue and called for its approval.
"I think in a way it was a noble experiment that failed," said former
Mayor Jan Jones, who helped write the law that created the Ethics
Review Board. "Maybe it goes back to that it's very difficult to
Councilwoman Lynette Boggs McDonald, who authored a 2001 law that gave
greater due-process rights to those accused of misconduct, complained
that the board became a political tool that people used to attack their
"You have a board that's both the prosecutor, the defender and the
judge," Boggs McDonald said. "And to me, that gets very dangerous when
you're dealing with people who have constitutional rights."
City attorney Brad Jerbic said it makes sense to let ethics complaints
be adjudicated under state law, which is very similar to the city code.
"The state system has improved tremendously, and the city system has
become somewhat redundant," said Jerbic, who helped write the original
city ethics code. "It's also led to unintended consequences, and that
is from time to time complaints get filed in both jurisdictions and
that's not the intent of our code to get someone to answer twice to the
Commission and the Councilman Michael McDonald, for example, faced
hearings before the state Ethicscity's Ethics Review Board on the same
set of charges but with far different results.
In November 2000, the city's panel found McDonald guilty of
intentionally breaking the ethics code when he lobbied his City Council
colleagues to approve a transaction that would have benefited
McDonald's private employer.
A month later, the panel unanimously voted to send the case to District
Court for prosecution on malfeasance charges, which were ultimately
Three months later, the Nevada Ethics Commission looked at the same
facts but decided that even though McDonald violated state ethics laws,
his actions were not intentional.
Even though the city ethics board has a reputation for being tougher on
elected officials than the state panel, several officials said the
state does a good job of handling complaints.
Attorney Frank Cremen, who prosecuted McDonald in District Court, said
the state Ethics Commission has come a long way since the days when it
was viewed as a toothless tiger.
In years past, Cremen said, the state panel was staffed by one
part-time employee. But since Gov. Kenny Guinn took office the panel
has been given additional resources.
"They now have the means and ability to go out and investigate and to
pursue these things," Cremen said.
Jones said when she and councilmen Frank Hawkins and Arnie Adamsen
created the Ethics Review Board they never expected it to produce court
trials like the McDonald case or the Municipal Court trial this summer
in which Councilman Michael Mack was acquitted of misdemeanor
"That wasn't our intent," said Jones, who doubts the law has done much
to improve the behavior of public officials.
"I wouldn't say that the ethics committee has changed anybody's
ethics," she said. "It's severely impacted some people's lives."
Former Councilman Steve Miller, who authored the original 1991 ethics
code after a scandal involving Mayor Ron Lurie's land holdings, said
his original intent was simply to force increased disclosure by public
Miller, who has filed state ethics complaints with the state against
McDonald and Jones, now says it should be up to the voters to decide if
an official has abused their office.
"There's no way that you legislate ethics or morality, and to put a
board there to say we're now going to legislate it was ludicrous,"
Miller said. "It's up to the voters."