Sunday, Feb. 22, 2009 | 2 a.m.
We don’t just have relationships with legislators, we have one on our payroll.
That was subtext — even if unintentional — of newspaper ads bought by McDonald Carano Wilson, a law and lobbying firm at which state Sen. Terry Care of Las Vegas is a partner.
The ads ran the week before the Legislature convened. They featured Care standing in front of the state Capitol and extolled his service to his country as a decorated Army veteran and to Nevada as the Democratic assistant minority leader and chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Care, who is not a lobbyist but has partners who represent big corporate clients before the Legislature, is widely respected. His professional and political ethics are said to be beyond reproach.
Still, the ads are a jarring reminder of Nevada’s political culture, where conflicts of interests and unsettling appearances are so common as to evince mere shrugs.
“Where do you think you are, man?” said David Damore, a UNLV political scientist, making light of Nevada’s reputation for an interlocking relationship between business and government.
The firm’s managing partner in Las Vegas, George Ogilvie, said the firm prides itself on its professional ethics. He said the campaign is a response to big national and regional competitors moving into Nevada, an attempt to show that the firm has partners with deep Nevada roots and a commitment to the state.
Indeed, another ad features Thomas Sheets, who heads the Nevada Tax Commission, which is where taxpayers — often big corporations that may want to hire McDonald Carano Wilson — plead their cases for a lower tax bill. They often succeed.
The firm recruited Sheets from Southwest Gas to win energy clients, not tax appeal business, where it doesn’t have a practice currently, Ogilvie said.
McDonald Carano is hardly the only firm that employs the politically powerful. Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, the Reno Republican, is a partner at Jones Vargas, whose lobbyists roam the halls of the Legislature speaking on behalf of insurance, gaming, hospitals, mining and the like.
And Rory Reid, chairman of the Clark County Commission, is a partner at Lionel Sawyer & Collins, which lobbies governments at all levels.
State Sen. Mark Amodei, R-Carson City, was president of the Nevada Mining Association until resigning before the legislative session, and his colleague Warren Hardy, R-Las Vegas, is president of the Las Vegas chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors. Las Vegas City Councilman Steve Ross is secretary-treasurer of the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council.
With a part-time, citizen legislature, some of this is unavoidable, as the people’s representatives have to earn a living.
Still, Eric Herzik, a political scientist at the University Nevada, Reno, and scholar of interest group politics, said he was surprised when he came to the state by how brazen some of the conflicts of interest are and the willingness of legislators to write laws that affect their industry or law practices. He blamed the part-time nature of the job, but also said there’s something different about the political culture here, where the appearance of conflict or impropriety doesn’t seem to carry the same weight as in other states.
Damore contrasted other places, where there’s at least lip service paid to avoiding the appearance of conflict.
“Here they embrace the appearance of conflict,” he said.
To varying degrees of conscientiousness, legislators disclose their conflicts and abstain from voting on issues in which they have a financial interest. Care is known to do this consistently, and he said he’ll do so this session.
But McDonald Carano Wilson apparently has no “Chinese Wall,” a reference to rules to prevent conflicts or even the appearance of conflicts. Care is heading up a subcommittee that will look at construction defect legislation. Builders, subcontractors and plaintiffs’ attorneys are engaged in a contentious battle over the issue. Care’s partner Paul Georgeson, a registered lobbyist who heads up McDonald Carano’s construction law practice and is general counsel for the Nevada chapter of Associated General Contractors, said he has talked to Care about the issue.
That wouldn’t be acceptable in other places. In Oregon, a conversation like that “would be taken seriously,” said Don Hamilton, a spokesman for the Oregon secretary of state.
Oregon has about the same population size as Nevada and shares its tradition of a part-time citizen legislature. It also has firm lines between government business and lobbying. Hamilton noted that a deputy in the secretary of state’s office came from a lobbying shop but had to cut all ties upon accepting the job.
Care, who has been with McDonald Carano Wilson for about two years, said the construction defect issue has been around in nearly every session since he arrived in 1999. He said he is comfortable leading the legislative effort.
For all his feigned flippancy, Damore said these relationships and appearances aren’t harmless. They erode Nevadans’ belief in their democracy and their ability to get the same hearing as the big timers, he said.
“This is one of the reasons everybody hates government so much,” he said.