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April 17, 2014

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Jon Ralston on how the governor and first lady used their political positions to benefit a private interest

In early 2004 Sparks-based Sierra Nevada Corp. began promoting an event to be held in Southern Nevada to unveil a new communications technology. Luckily, the company had some help from an elected official, who , unbeknownst to most people who received an invitation to the presentation , was being paid by the company.

Then-Assemblywoman Dawn Gibbons sent the invitation to many on the front lines of emergency response and followed up with phone calls. The invite for the hyped "Force 4" system declared the March 10 event at the Jean Airfield was hosted by Sierra Nevada principals Fatih and Eren Ozmen and "Dawn Gibbons - state assemblywoman."

So now we know what the Ozmen family got from the Gibbons family, besides a federal contract from Jim and marketing strategy from Dawn. They received the benefit of her state office, which Dawn Gibbons used to help hawk the company's wares.

No wonder Gibbons told the Associated Press a few days ago that Sierra Nevada "got a bargain for the work I did ... Believe me, they got their money's worth."

Indeed, the assemblywoman, who would decide not to seek reelection that year, went far beyond the call of her consulting contract, making people feel as if they were being strong-armed by an elected official , and probably broke state ethics laws to shill for the company.

This was quite a deal for the defense contractor: Dawn Gibbons was working hard for Sierra Nevada in Nevada, and Jim Gibbons was toiling for the company in Washington, D.C.

Others were willing to be conscripted for the cause . The invitation declare d that honorary dignitaries in attendance included Giles Vanderhoof, adjutant general for the Nevada National Guard, and Jerry Bussell, who at the time was the head of Homeland Security for the state. (That has to help a company's bona fides , if someone can get the top Homeland Security guy to attend what amounts to a sales event for a product. A bargain indeed!)

The invitation contained quite the breathless hype about Force 4, almost reminiscent of Gibbons gushing about dramatically overhauling the budget process or the transforming power of empowerment schools.

"SNC's Force 4 communications system offers real-time video, individual emergency response tracking, two-way voice and message traffic with command center interaction for terrorism preparedness and response," the invitation said. "This sensitive briefing is only being exhibited to a limited and privileged audience of Nevada's homeland first responders."

I understand that those who received or heard about the invitation used adjectives ranging from "odd" to "uncomfortable" to describe how the solicitation from an elected official made them feel. Odd? Uncomfortable? How about outrageous?

An assemblywoman, the head of the National Guard and the Homeland Security chief are fronting for a company trying to sell a communications system? I don't care if this was a remarkable innovation equivalent to a Star Trek communicator - Gibbons and Co. all but gave it a state seal of approval. How valuable is that to a company?

It ought to be against the law. Indeed, it is against this law:

"A public officer or employee shall not use his position in government to secure or grant unwarranted privileges, preferences, exemptions or advantages for himself, any business entity in which he has a significant pecuniary interest, or any person to whom he has a commitment in a private capacity to the interests of that person."

That's the seminal part of the state ethics law and this is an obvious violation. But as with most of these cases, you don't need to quote a law to realize that it should be verboten.

The more information that trickles out about the Gibbonses and what they were willing to do for Sierra Nevada , the worse it looks. Force 4 presumably was the device that Sierra Nevada officials said Gibbons was hired to help them sell, as The Wall Street Journal first reported, "to casinos and state and local governments."

So an assemblywoman, using her title as entree, promoted a product for sale to two groups that the Legislature regulates? Does anyone not get what is wrong with this picture?

The real question, of course, as Dawn Gibbons worked the state for Sierra Nevada and Jim Gibbons worked the nation's capital for the company, is whom the assemblywoman and the congressman thought they were working for in 2004.

Maybe it's just a coincidence that is the identical question the FBI is asking about Gov. Gibbons vis a vis his relationship with Warren Trepp, another entrepreneur he helped make richer with a federal contract. And, if that old saw about leopards also applies to Gibbonses, why should we think they have changed their spots now that they are living in the mansion?

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