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Ethics Commission: Gibbons never pressured assessor

Updated Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2008 | 5:44 p.m.

CARSON CITY – Gov. Jim Gibbons never used pressure or misused his position to gain a tax benefit on 40 acres he purchased in Elko County last year, an Ethics Commission investigation concluded.

Michel Vavra, investigator for the state Ethics Commission, interviewed six witnesses, including Gibbons and Elko County Assessor Joe Aguirre who had alleged there was pressure used to gain a tax advantage.

“The evidence does not support the allegations that Gibbons used his position in government to obtain unwarranted privileges” said Vavra, whose report released today will be present to a two-member panel of the Ethics Commission on Sept. 11.

The panel must decide if there is enough evidence to forward the complaint to the full commission that would issue a final ruling. A complaint was filed with the commission by Travis Brock, executive director of the state Democratic Party after newspaper stories questioned if Gibbons was entitled to an agricultural tax deduction on the property.

Brock maintained the governor used his authority to gain an unwarranted tax break. He also said the governor misused Elko Attorney John Marvel, a member of the state Tax Commission, to help him get the reduction.

Vavra said his inquiry showed “the evidence does not support the allegations that Gibbons or Marvel pressured Aguirre.

“The only form of communication between Aguirre and Gibbons was Gibbons’ short visit to inquire about the procedure” to gain a tax break on the land, said Vavra. “Like any citizen, Gibbons has the right to apply and to receive an Agricultural Use Assessment, if his land qualifies.”

Gibbons' spokesman, Ben Kieckhefer, said the investigation backed up the governor's account of what happened and that nothing improper occurred.

"The findings today are by no means a surprise for the governor or any of us," he said.

The report, he said, "highlights the fact that this is a political stunt by the Democratic Party ... It was meant to distract people from the fact that Democrats have followed the governor’s lead when it comes to addressing the state's fiscal crisis.”

In August 2007, Gibbons and his wife, Dawn, purchased the 40-acre parcel from former Washoe District Judge Jerry Carr Whitehead. The governor then stopped by the office of the assessor to determine how to continue the agricultural tax break.

The assessor says tax on the land would be $1,893 without the exemption. With it, the tax was $39.71. Gibbons and Whitehead agreed to let Whitehead’s cattle continue to graze on the property. Whitehead paid him $5,727 for the grazing rights.

Aguirre was concerned about the proposed tax break. He said that Gibbons needed to produce proof that he received $5,000 or more for the grazing rights if the tax reduction was to continue.

But the investigator for the Ethics Commission said there is no requirement that Gibbons had to earn any income for the exemption as long as the property was contiguous to Whitehead’s agricultural property.

Because of his questions, Aguirre never approved the tax reduction application but let it take effect without his signatures.

Vavra said Aguirre, although he did not feel comfortable with the tax request, failed to ask for additional information. “Aguirre claimed that the property does not qualify which is absolutely contradicting of NRS 361A. Gibbons’ property qualifies for the tax deferment under Agricultural Use Assessment as it meets all requirements…”

Brock could not be reached for comment.

The investigator also said he found inconsistencies in statements by Aguirre. He said the assessor claimed he requested a copy of the grazing lease between Gibbons and Whitehead. That contradicts his earlier statement, said Vavra. There were only two letters exchanged between the assessor and Marvel, the lawyer, and there was no mention of a lease.

Aguirre requested proof that Whitehead had paid more than $5,000 for leasing the grazing rights. Marvel, the lawyer, sent him the front side of two checks totaling $5,727. The assessor said he never received copies of the back side of the checks to show they had been cashed. The investigator said Aguirre failed to request the back side of the checks either from Marvel or Gibbons.

The two members of the panel who will hear the case next week are Tim Cashman of Las Vegas and former state Sen. Eric Beyer of Reno.

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

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