Las Vegas Sun

September 21, 2014

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An affront to ethics in the City Hall vote

Suspend your disbelief, if only briefly. Suppose a controversial downtown casino proposal were on the Las Vegas City Council agenda for zoning approval. Further, suppose the Culinary Union’s secretary-treasurer, D. Taylor, were a councilman. Finally, suppose hundreds of Culinary members showed up at the council meeting to give emotional pleas about how important the project’s jobs were to their families, especially during this recession.

Does anybody think this would not be an obvious conflict of interest for Taylor, because he would, as the law states, have a “commitment in private capacity to the interests of others”?

Of course it would be. And while this is a fantasy, a union secretary-treasurer who is on the council had hundreds of his members make a passionate pitch for a project at Wednesday’s council meeting — and Steve “Boss” Ross decided it was ethical to vote on the proposed Oscar B. Goodman City Hall.

That Ross, secretary-treasurer of the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades, has violated state ethics laws is not in doubt — whether or not the Ethics Commission ever says so.

Indeed, Ross has flouted ethics laws since 2007 when he took the union job. The statute plainly says, “A public officer or employee must commit himself to avoid conflicts between his private interests and those of the general public whom he serves.” Instead of committing himself to avoid conflicts, Ross invited one — and a nice salary to boot.

Ross ignored that part of the law as well as this section: “A public officer may vote upon a matter if the benefit or detriment accruing to him as a result of the decision either individually or in a representative capacity as a member of a general business, profession, occupation or group is not greater than that accruing to any other member of the general business, profession, occupation or group.”

The councilman’s “representative capacity” as head of the building trades clearly saddles him with that “commitment in private capacity to the interests of others.” Most people don’t appreciate the simple elegance of that construction, outlining as it does what should be common sense. That is, you can’t vote in your public position on anything that would benefit yourself or anyone you represent in your private life.

Granted, this is Las Vegas City Hall, a place where ethics standards have been lowered for years during the Goodman Era. Mayor Oscar Goodman thought it was fine to use his position to help his son’s business. Ex-Councilman Michael Mack thought it was fine to take a loan from a city supplicant. And ex-Councilman Michael McDonald once thought it was fine to use his council position to help his private employer.

But even with that low bar set, Ross has set a new standard for obviousness of conflict. Ross claimed when he took the union job in 2007 that the state ethics panel had given him a “favorable” response, but he did not disclose that several members of Ethics Commission (who never should have sanctioned his seeking the post) warned him it was fraught with peril.

Commissioner George Keele put it best when he told Ross: “I agree with the commissioners down there who are concerned about the inherent, or the potential for inherent conflict of interest. I think that if you win this race for secretary-treasurer, I think you are going to be walking a field of land mines ...”

Even the mayor made his colleague’s conflict obvious when he talked about why the city hall project is so important: “The bottom line ... is J-O-B-S,” Goodman said last month and has repeated many times since.

Yes, jobs. For the members of the unions Ross represents. As if oblivious to how it makes the ethics case against him, Ross’ union members sent out a news release Thursday headlined “Construction Trades to Stage Candlelight Vigil Until New City Hall Breaks Ground.” The release quoted two officials talking about the 13,000 jobs the project would create — many for Ross’ members.

The real point here is what it is with most of these cases, which are black and white to most people but not to elected officials exploring the limits of their power: You don’t need an ethics law — or even a cleverly parsing city attorney — to tell you when something is unethical.

On Stewart Avenue, though, where pushing for a quarter-billion-dollar city hall during a recession is an ethics violation of another kind and where the rectitude bar is set as low as the public will bear, Oscar and the Six Dwarves have redeveloped the very definition of proper behavior.

Ross’ conflict is just as invisible downtown as that new City Hall is destined to be.

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