Las Vegas Sun

December 19, 2014

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Atkinson Gates scrutiny grows

On three occasions in 2005 and 2006, then-Clark County Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates voted to award a total of $408,081 to a controversial HIV prevention organization.

And on each occasion, she failed to disclose that Fighting AIDS in Our Community Today (FACT) had been founded by her longtime political consultant Michael Chambliss - or that the group had paid her son's company, Advibe Advertising, $58,000 to register voters.

Atkinson Gates' links to money that flowed to her family and friends during her years on the County Commission have drawn the attention of Metro Police. Detectives are investigating whether Atkinson Gates illegally funneled money to relatives and close associates, according to sources familiar with the probe.

Atkinson Gates did not return phone calls from the Sun, nor did an attorney for Chambliss.

Chambliss founded FACT in 1999 to reduce new HIV infections in the black community.

By then, the state Ethics Commission had highlighted his close ties to Atkinson Gates. In 1998 the state panel called their relationship "substantial, trusting and complex" when it censured Atkinson Gates for recommending Chambliss for an airport concession contract, then voting to approve the contract without disclosing their ties. A state judge later overturned the ruling.

Brian Atkinson Turner, the former commissioner's son, and his wife, Kathryn O'Gara, started Advibe Advertising in 2003 to capitalize on the political knowledge he gained while working on his mother's campaigns, he says.

In 2004 FACT paid Advibe $58,000 to register voters. Mike Waller, FACT's bookkeeper, said that money came from a $300,000 grant from Washington-based America's Families United. At the time Chambliss was FACT's board chairman. He is no longer with FACT, and faces murder charges in the stabbing death of a man in November 2005.

Lionel Starkes, who became FACT's executive director in September 2005, could not say what voter registration had to do with AIDS prevention.

"That was before I got here," he said. "Our mission is HIV/AIDS. That's all our mission is. That's all we do."

Turner cites success in the voter registration project, saying he registered 30,000 new voters under the moniker Voter Empowerment Project.

County election records, however, show that the Voter Empowerment Project registered 4,230 voters. Turner blames the discrepancy on the Election Department misplacing registrations. At the time of the registration drive, Turner told the Sun that he was late filing 200 registration forms for the primary.

Based on those 4,230 verified registrations, Turner's firm was paid nearly $14 per new voter - three to five times the fee that political consultants said even the best voter sign-up campaigns typically receive.

After FACT paid Advibe in 2004, Atkinson Gates voted three times, in September 2005 and last May and October, to allocate county grants to FACT. During the first of those votes, Chambliss was FACT's chairman. And though he no longer held the post during the 2006 votes, FACT's payment to Advibe continued to pose a potential conflict of interest for Atkinson Gates.

All three votes were on the commission's consent agenda, a list of several dozen items that commissioners deal with in a single vote. On each occasion, Atkinson Gates did not disclose her relationship to Chambliss or FACT's payment to her son's company, according to county records.

Craig Walton, president of the Nevada Center for Public Ethics, said Atkinson Gates should have disclosed her history with Chambliss when voting to give FACT money.

"She should have mentioned him so the public and the constituents know," Walton said.

FACT's payment to her son's company furthered the need for disclosure, Walton said.

County Counsel Mary-Anne Miller said Atkinson Gates did not ask for a legal opinion about whether she should disclose or abstain on the FACT votes.

The controversy surrounding FACT's payment to Advibe is one of many for the struggling organization, even though the nonprofit organization has been flush with public money.

In 2003, after state legislators appropriated $250,000 to FACT, it proposed spending a large amount on a gospel concert. State officials spiked that idea.

In an October letter, Clark County Social Services Director Patricia Pate said there were many instances of poor stewardship of a county grant and poor communication by FACT. FACT's future could be at "grave risk" without immediate reform, she said.

A month later, county officials discovered Starkes was signing his own paychecks and forced corrective action and an audit.

Starkes acknowledged the problems with the county and said they have been addressed.

In January, though, the county declined to fund FACT for fiscal 2007 because of new restrictions related to grant money.

Starkes is struggling to keep the organization open. FACT serves about 150 clients a year with a budget of about $300,000, he said. The staff has been reduced from five to two, and Starkes said he has not been paid in months.

"I'm dealing with a past history, and people in this community have long memories," he said.

Starkes said he is working to restore the group's reputation and FACT has "tried to do everything as honestly as we possibly could" since he became executive director.

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