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October 24, 2014

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Lobbyists flout disclosure rules in talks with commissioners

Lack of penalties blamed for lack of compliance

On more than 170 occasions this year, lobbyists failed to file disclosure forms when they visited Clark County commissioners, leaving the public in the dark about what issues they were pushing and on whose behalf.

The failures expose flaws in the disclosure policy — and confusion about that policy among commissioners and lobbyists alike. Although the county requires more than federal and state governments do, it doesn’t impose penalties for violations.

As a result, lobbyists are regularly flouting the rules, failing to disclose their private meetings with commissioners, sometimes on controversial issues, such as new regulations for payday loan stores and Republic Services’ proposed rate increase on trash collection.

The county raised the disclosure threshold in 2002, requiring lobbyists to document on a disclosure form each time they communicate with a county commissioner, in addition to filing an annual declaration.

The disclosure form for each communication includes the name of the commissioner contacted, the item discussed and the group the lobbyist represented. Ironically, the new requirement was added at the behest of former Commissioner Dario Herrera, who is doing time in federal prison for taking bribes from a strip club owner.

At the time, commissioners hailed the new policy as an important step toward transparency in county government.

Although 189 disclosure forms were filed in the first half of the year, lobbyists failed to file the forms on at least 171 other occasions, according to a comparison of check-in logs and disclosure forms. Most of the time lobbyists signed a check-in log when visiting commissioners but did not file a disclosure form. Some lobbyists didn’t even check in. Unlike the disclosure form, the check-in log does not show what issue was discussed and on whose behalf.

“We improved our policy in significant ways, but there is obviously no teeth,” said Commission Chairman Rory Reid. “I think it’s a reason why people don’t comply. There is no penalty.”

Lobbyists who failed to fill out disclosure forms included:

• Jennifer Lazovich of Kummer, Kaempfer, Bonner, Renshaw & Ferrario. She represents check-cashing stores, homebuilders and billboard companies. She failed to disclose her activity on at least 15 occasions, according to the comparison. She did, however, file disclosure forms on six other occasions.

• Tony Celeste of the same firm. He primarily represents developers. He failed to disclose his activity on 15 occasions, though he did file five disclosure forms.

• Attorney Jay Brown. Brown, a close friend of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s and a former law firm colleague of Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, lobbied commissioners on at least three occasions. Brown’s clients include Republic Services, check cashing stores and the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada. On one occasion, he disclosed his work on land-use issues but did not reveal his client. Commissioners say he visited at least two other times, but he neither checked in nor filed disclosure forms.

• Lee Haney of Rogich Communications. She lobbied commissioners at least five times but didn’t register as a lobbyist and didn’t file any disclosure forms. Haney said she could not recall the clients or the issues discussed. A county official, however, said at least one issue involved an airport concession owned by Kathy Morris, daughter of former airport Director Bob Broadbent, and Sig Rogich, a political adviser to Gov. Jim Gibbons.

Some lobbyists, including Lazovich and Celeste, called the failures oversights and said they weren’t trying to hide anything. They pledged Friday to file the necessary disclosure forms.

Others, such as Haney, said they were unaware of the county’s policy. She said she registered as a lobbyist with the county Friday.

Brown’s secretary said he could not be reached.

Even some commissioners seem confused about the county’s lobbyist disclosure rules.

“On the local level, (lobbying) is much more informal,” Commissioner Tom Collins told listeners on KNPR’s “State of Nevada” last month. “They don’t have to wear a badge here at the county.”

Actually, the policy commissioners approved in 2002 says, “The lobbyist must wear the identification badge whenever he or she is engaged in lobbying activity with a member of the board.”

Lobbyists who tended to comply with the rules say the policy is clear and well-publicized by the county.

Attorney Chris Kaempfer, perhaps the most frequent visitor to commission offices, filed disclosure forms for each of his 50 visits. “If you’ve been there five or six times you better know what the policy is,” he said.

Kaempfer says his law firm emphasizes compliance with the rules. Lazovich and Celeste work at Kaempfer’s law firm.

“I think the policy is very clear,” said land use consultant Greg Borgel, another frequent visitor who complied with the requirements. “The receptionist is very explicit. I don’t think there’s any vagueness there.”

Commissioners acknowledge the policy’s shortcomings and say they want to introduce penalties for violators.

“There’s no enforcement right now, and that is what has to be looked at,” Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said. “There is no sense having rules if there is no way to enforce them.”

Some commissioners, however, have expressed concern that the county would need permission from state lawmakers to impose penalties.

“We are a subdivision of the state and I think we will need more authority if we want more teeth,” Reid said.

Still, Collins suggested that commissioners could ban rule-breakers from lobbying for 30 days if they violate the policy.

Despite tough talk, commissioners walk a fine political line in strictly regulating lobbyists, who are typically sizable campaign contributors and sometimes fundraisers.

Collins, for example, acknowledged that he often meets lobbyists at restaurants.

Such meetings must be disclosed by lobbyists within five days, according to the county’s policy.

When asked to discuss the details of those meetings, Collins refused.

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