Las Vegas Sun

October 20, 2014

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Gibbons’ legal, political troubles adding up

Gov. Jim Gibbons' political and legal adversity has entered a new phase: a high-profile Washington lawyer, a legal defense fund to pay for him, and now, a potential recall battle.

Gibbons on Tuesday amended a previous financial disclosure form with the secretary of state's office, disclosing the existence of a legal defense fund and its donors - and describing the donations as "gifts."

The 24 names listed include the company owned by Gibbons' campaign adviser Sig Rogich; developer Jay Brown; three companies controlled by lobbyist and developer Harvey Whittemore; and the New Frontier.

About $170,000 was raised for the fund, according to the filing, and nearly $90,000 has been paid to the firm of Gibbons' Las Vegas attorney, Don Campbell.

A discrepancy arose, however, between the documents and oral statements made by the fund's accountant, David Turner, in an interview with the Sun on Tuesday.

Turner said there are 28 donors. He said Las Vegas Sands Corp. and the Venetian, both controlled by Sheldon Adelson, had contributed. Neither appeared on the filing.

The last donation was made Feb. 27, Turner said.

The FBI is investigating Gibbons' relationship with Northern Nevada defense contractor Warren Trepp. While serving in the House before being elected governor in November, Gibbons helped Trepp obtain government defense contracts for his company eTreppid Technologies LLC. Trepp and Gibbons acknowledge Trepp gave Gibbons gifts that included most of the costs of a Caribbean cruise.

In a statement, Campbell said last week that the governor "has asked that people remember that he has been an honest and hardworking public official for 20 years, would not and never has sold the public's trust and that any thorough investigation will come to that conclusion."

Gibbon has said that the gifts from Trepp stem from their long-standing friendship, not the former congressman's help in securing the contracts.

The Gibbons defense fund began as a trust last November with the help of Michael Pagni, a Reno partner in the firm McDonald Carano Wilson. Among the trustees are Lia Roberts, a prominent Republican who headed the governor's inaugural ball in Las Vegas. The day-to-day administrator is Turner, a Reno accountant. Trepp does not appear on the list of defense fund contributors.

Nevada law prohibits elected officials from accepting campaign donations while the Legislature is in session. But the law makes no mention of contributions to a legal defense fund.

Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, said she does not think "it's appropriate for him to receive those contributions during the legislative session. The reason we have restrictions is because there are many special interests with matters before the Legislature, and we have that 'cooling-off' period to protect the integrity of the process."

Pagni, the trust lawyer, said the law about the legislative session governs campaign contributions only. The defense fund is designed to help Gibbons pay his private legal expenses, he said.

Supporters say they created the fund to help Gibbons deal with what they believed were politically motivated allegations, just as supporters of former President Bill Clinton helped pay his legal bills.

Before the November election, Gibbons faced three legal hurdles: a Las Vegas woman, Chrissy Mazzeo, said he assaulted her in a parking garage; a former domestic employee alleged that she had been an illegal immigrant when Gibbons hired her; and the Trepp matter.

Gibbons has been charged with no crimes. He was cleared in the assault matter after investigators said they could find no evidence to corroborate Mazzeo's claims.

Now, though, Gibbons needs new financial help. Last week, Campbell announced that Gibbons hired Abbe Lowell, one of the country's best known white-collar criminal defense lawyers.

Lowell represented Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has been convicted of fraud and is cooperating with prosecutors in their wide-ranging investigation of congressional bribery. Lowell also represented former California Democratic Rep. Gary Condit, who had been the subject of an investigation after the disappearance in 2001 of an intern, a young woman with whom he eventually admitted having an affair.

Nevada Republicans privately questioned the wisdom of the public announcement of the Lowell hiring, especially given the notoriety of some of his clients.

As talk of Gibbons' troubles buzzed around Carson City, a senior Democratic legislator and a high-level Democratic source independently confirmed Tuesday that preliminary discussions have begun about a potential recall of Gibbons. They refused to talk about it publicly, saying the conversations are informal.

Democratic spokeswoman Kirsten Searer acknowledged "casual discussions" about a recall, and added that if allegations against Gibbons prevent him from governing, "then maybe a recall is something Nevadans should consider."

A recall, which would entail removing Gibbons from office in a new election, couldn't happen until the governor has been in office six months.

Sun reporter Steve Kanigher contributed to this report.

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