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December 1, 2002
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal

City ethics code faces abolishment



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 legislate ethics."

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 enemies.

"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 same allegations."

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 dismissed.

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 conflict-of-interest charges.

"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 officials.

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."

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