COMMENTARY: Steve Miller
Las Vegas Tribune
August 28, 2002

The Thread That Binds

Tony Sgro was the attorney for John Staluppi, the car dealer responsible for bringing Las Vegas City Councilmen Larry Brown and Michael Mack up on ethics charges. Sgro is also the attorney for Councilman Michael McDonald and his best friend, topless bar owner Rick Rizzolo.

A coincidence? Maybe.

McDonald routinely abstains on items affecting Rizzolo. As the reason, McDonald cites he and Rizzolo share the same attorney - Sgro. However, public officials often vote on items that are presented by attorneys that represented them on personal matters. This is acceptable as long as they disclose the association.

Some background on the "coincidence," and the ethics law:

On December 15, 1999, Michael Mack was appointed to the council following a bitter power struggle between then-new Mayor Oscar Goodman and veteran Councilman Michael McDonald. McDonald had his own choice for the Ward Six seat, Orlando Sanchez, who was overlooked in favor of Goodman's pick Michael Mack. McDonald also had hand picked another appointee, Uri Clinton, who was turned down in favor of Lawrence Weekly - another of Goodman's choices. This infuriated McDonald who had intended to take over the council and make Goodman his lap dog.

In addition to Goodman, McDonald battled over his desired appointments with another newcomer to the council, Lynette Boggs-McDonald, who he believed owed him a favor for his helping to secure her appointment following Arnie Adamson stepping down to run for mayor in 1999. However, to Mike McDonald's dismay, he eventually lost her vote in the 11th hour when she also decided to side with Goodman and appoint Mack. This further infuriated McDonald and his handlers who envisioned him gaining enough votes to control the council and later become Governor, but Goodman foiled the plot.

In the meantime, Goodman offered Councilman Gary Reese a favor if he would support his nominees: the appointment to Mayor Pro Tem and a position on the Convention Authority. Reese agreed thereby leaving Mike McDonald, et al, out in the cold. McDonald later joined in to make Mack's and Weekly's appointments unanimous, but not without prejudice.

Soon, revenge was sought on two of the councilmen who impeded the McDonald takeover scheme. When the Staluppi matter surfaced, Tony Sgro, Rizzolo/McDonald/Staluppi's lawyer, accused Councilmen Larry Brown of an ethics violation. Brown inadvertently stumbled into the vendetta when he sided with Goodman on Michael Mack's appointment. Then, Sgro went after Mack for not disclosing a loan from a competitor of one of Sgro's clients.

The thread that binds those who were seeking revenge soon became apparent. Rizzolo/McDonald's fingerprints were all over the misery befalling Brown and Mack. In the meantime, a friendly city hall reporter slanted stories in McDonald's favor. (The same reporter was seen visiting McDonald's house during off-hours.)

Why did Mike McDonald, et al, so vigorously pursue his detractors? Because, he had himself been found guilty of serious ethics violations including favors he did for his former boss who needed to be bailed out of a bad investment at taxpayer's expense; favors he did for a major campaign contributor - Republic Silver State Disposal - that wanted to renew their contract without having to submit to competitive bidding; and favors he did for Rizzolo when he wanted to squelch competition proposed by Sig Rogich.

McDonald needed to muddy the waters to distract from being the first official in the city's history to be found guilty by the ethics board, hence, he and his cronies tried to involve Brown and Mack in similar ethics charges.

When Brown and Mack became the target of ethics complaints, Mike McDonald cautiously retreated into the shadows. The two councilmen then spent tens of thousands of dollars of their own money on defense attorneys thereby diverting the negative headlines away from McDonald.

Now, it has become clear that trying to prosecute public officials in lieu of letting their constituents decide their fate at the ballot box, is just not working.

Every judge has refused to usurp the wishes of a constituency to force removal of a wayward public official before his or her term runs out. Recall attempts have also failed. Because of this, the essence of the City of Las Vegas Ethics in Government Law comes to mind.

"DISCLOSE OVER THE MICRAPHONE" any information that you believe would be of interest to your constituents during the public hearing "BEFORE VOTING!" I wrote those words into the law.

Once the disclosure is made, VOTE YOUR CONSCIENCE, or ABSTAIN. If you abstain, give a clear reason.

Let the voters be the judge of what constitutes ethical behavior. Ethics cannot be legislated, and it was never my intention to see this foolish waste of taxpayer's time and money in courts trying to determine what is, and what is not ethical. My only desire was that public officials DISCLOSE all their connections over the microphone before a vote, or their reason for abstaining. The only crime that is punishable is LACK OF DISCLOSURE. That is the essence of the ethics law.

I, without a lawyer, successfully brought three cases before the state ethics commission based on officials failing to DISCLOSE their possible conflicts of interests. I never criticized the official's potential conflicts - only their failure to disclose them. I also put my own name on the complaints - not that of a subordinate. In all three cases, the official's lack of disclosure was not found "willful," and they walked away after a scolding from commissioners.

Ethics is something inherent within each person and cannot be legislated. When I was in office, I voted my conscience without consulting the city or county attorney, however, I disclosed every detail over the microphone before voting or abstaining.

The current waste of time and money trying to determine ethics is nothing more than a payback to those who once refused to cooperate with certain phantoms who wished to take over our city government for their own monetary gain. The original ethics law was solely intended to force public office holders to DISCLOSE all real, potential, or perceived conflicts, that's all. The voters, and only the voters, were intended to be the judge of ethical behavior.

If the ethics law was applied as it was first intended when I sponsered it in 1990, it could not be used as a hatchet to punish political enemies as happened in the cases of Larry Brown and Michael Mack.

Steve Miller is a former Las Vegas City Councilman. He was the author and sponsor of the original City of Las Vegas Ethics in Government Law. Visit his website at: http://www.SteveMiller4LasVegas.com