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September 17, 2014

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Assessor says he wasn’t pressured into Gibbons tax break

CARSON CITY – Elko Assessor Joe Aguirre said Gov. Jim Gibbons never put pressure on him to approve an almost $5,000 tax break for 40 acres the governor purchased last year near Lamoille.

Aguirre said he had only one meeting with Gibbons in his Elko County office when the governor inquired how he would get an agriculture tax break.

The Nevada Ethics Commission is investigating whether Gibbons used pressure on the county assessor to gain the tax break on property purchased by former District Judge Jerry Carr Whitehead.

Michel Vavra, an investigator for the ethics commission, questioned Aguirre on Aug. 21 about the event. Vavra asked Aguirre if the governor made any indications that the assessor had to approve the tax reduction.

Aguirre replied: "No, like I said, he (Gibbons) didn't put any pressure on me or anything, just asked some questions that I felt that any citizen would ask, and every, every citizen has a right to ... come in and ask questions and get answers."

But the assessor said he felt Gibbons' lawyer, John Marvel, "backed me up into a corner" when he wrote a letter asking for the tax deduction.

The testimony of Aguirre and Gibbons was filed with the ethics commission this week. Two members of the ethics commission will hold a hearing Sept. 11 to determine whether there is sufficient evidence for the full commission to look into whether there was any breach of ethics.

The complaint against Gibbons was filed by Travis Brock, executive director of the Nevada Democratic Party, alleging the governor used his position "to gain an unwarranted tax break on land he owned with his wife in Elko County."

Brock has suggested a penalty of $10,000 or $5,000 for each of the two alleged violations, saying the governor should pay twice the amount of the tax benefit he received.

Under the tax break, Gibbons is paying $40 a year, not the $5,000 the property would have been assessed.

Gibbons hired Marvel, an Elko attorney and a member of the Nevada Tax Commission, as his attorney to handle the request to get the tax break.

Aguirre did not approve the tax deferment and it became effective without his signature.

To gain the tax deferment, the Gibbons property would have had to generate at least $5,000 in gross income from grazing or other agricultural activity.

Brock questioned whether the 40 acres could generate that income. But Gibbons, through Marvel, produced two checks worth $5,000 paid by Whitehead allegedly for grazing of cattle.

Aguirre, in his interview with the ethics investigator, said he felt he was backed into a corner with Marvel being on the tax commission and added, "you know the largest case I ever lost was to the tax commission.''

Aguirre said all he had as evidence was two uncanceled checks from Whitehead made out to Gibbons for the grazing. But the checks were valid and had been cashed, according to Marvel.

Gibbons, in his testimony filed with the ethics commission, said the first and only time he met with the assessor was after he purchased the property.

During that meeting, Gibbons said he explained to Aguirre that he had purchased the 40 acres of the Thorpe Creek Ranch and he asked the requirements for continuing the tax reduction. He said Aguirre pulled out the law and went through the details.

The governor said, "I think he (Aguirre) said something about size and he said something about having to earn $5,000 a year or provide one half the feed for whatever and provide, I don't know, there was a number of requirements and I said OK and that is all he said."

He said the only time he used Marvel as his lawyer was on this transaction. And he hired him on the advice of Whitehead. The governor said, "quite honestly I never knew he was on the Tax Commission until the issue came up in the newspaper."

And he said he never appointed Marvel to the tax commission.

The governor said he did not know how many cattle graze on the land and that is up to the ranch manager of Whitehead's adjacent property.

Cy Ryan may be reached at (775) 687 5032 or [email protected].

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