Wednesday, July 16, 2008 | 2:01 a.m.
What happens in Elko doesn’t stay in Elko for Jim Gibbons.
Three years ago, he unleashed a maniacal, frothing vituperation against liberals that was first noteworthy for its hyperventilating rhetoric and then infamous because it was pilfered from, of all people, an Alabama state auditor. Elko Embarrassment No. 1.
Two months ago, the Elko Daily Free Press, in a scathing and shocking editorial eventually heard around the state, took first lady Dawn Gibbons’ side in an ugly divorce proceeding. Elko Embarrassment No. 2.
And now, beneath the beautiful Ruby Mountains, just outside Elko, Gibbons’ questionable property tax break has become the latest in a seemingly endless series of spectacular attempts to continually lower the bar on gubernatorial competence and behavior. Elko Embarrassment No. 3.
Three embarrassments and you’re out?
All this in the heart of Gibbons Country, where the governor defeated Dina Titus by almost a 3-1 margin in 2006 — does anyone think he could replicate those results today? And now the cows are coming home to graze — or are they? — in the one place where Gibbons thought he was politically invulnerable and the place where he plans to retire — perhaps sooner rather than later.
The story is relatively simple: On a 40-acre parcel Gibbons said he plans to retire to in Lamoille, the governor received a huge tax break — 99 percent — by getting it designated agricultural land. Joe Aguirre, the veteran Elko County assessor, a Republican, chafed at the tax break — both to Gibbons’ face and in writing to his attorney — and in return for blowing the whistle has been ridiculed by the governor’s office.
Indeed, during an interview Tuesday on “Face to Face,” Aguirre said Gibbons asked for the tax break during a meeting in Elko and then hired an attorney, John E. Marvel, who sits on the state Tax Commission, which Aguirre said is the only panel in Nevada that has power over him and once took $65,000 from the county in an adverse ruling. No wonder he felt, as he put it, “uncomfortable.”
Ordinarily, at this point, I would say the state’s highest elected official has earned the benefit of the doubt, that perhaps he was entitled to the tax break from $5,000 down to $40, that maybe the county assessor was just being obstreperous.
But Jim Gibbons is no ordinary governor and his tenure has earned him the benefit of being doubted every time he speaks. Aguirre, assessor for 17 years, is totally credible and Gibbons, governor for too long already, is, well, not.
What Aguirre is saying can be distilled to this: He told Gibbons, who approached him last year during the Elko County Fair, that the property did not qualify. He was then surprised to hear from Marvel, whose appointed position immediately made him feel pressured. And Aguirre says the governor fudged facts about the land to obtain an exemption that such a piece of property usually could not come close to qualifying for.
Or, as he put it, “I felt like they backed me into a corner. They knew exactly what to give me for evidence to qualify this property. I guess my choices were to call him a liar or let them go through.”
Call Jim Gibbons — the man who dissembled about a secret swearing-in ceremony as his first gubernatorial act, and followed that up with all manner of dissimulations about his professional and personal conduct — a liar? Perish the thought.
Aguirre said on the program he was so skeptical of the evidence Marvel provided him that he has determined Gibbons must annually requalify the land to continue to receive the exemption. It’s clear that after a long tenure in government, Aguirre thinks the highest elected official in the state has compromised the integrity of the tax process.
And for what?
A man who has slashed a billion dollars from the state budget in a haphazard, unimaginative, blundering way has been caught over an attempt to save a few thousand dollars on his property taxes? I wonder how people struggling to make ends meet during this economic downturn, made worse by Gibbons’ mindless cuts, feel when they read the governor may have used the power of his office to receive — what does the Ethics Commission call it? — an unwarranted benefit.
Maybe nothing will come of this, maybe it will simply be absorbed into the large reservoir of gaffes and prevarications that have characterized The Gibbons Era. But if this latest scandal finally undoes Jim Gibbons, it will be somehow fitting that what began in Elko, the heart of Gibbons Country, ends in Elko.