Las Vegas Sun

April 18, 2014

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Little light shines on politicians’ side funds

Law doesn’t force them to reveal who’s bankrolling committees

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman is mulling a run for governor.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman is mulling a run for governor.

Sun Coverage

Since 2000, Mayor Oscar Goodman has formed two political action committees with the stated goal of revitalizing downtown Las Vegas.

In 2005, then-North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon formed his NLVPAC to “promote good leadership to benefit North Las Vegas.”

It’s difficult to know whether these PACs have achieved their aims. Nevada law allows political action committees to gather donations and — with the exception of donations to political candidates — spend that money without any public disclosure or limit.

Critics say those laws, which are among the weakest in the nation, deprive voters of potentially important information about who is giving money to and potentially currying the favor of elected officials.

PACs are often used as a way for political donors looking to support a candidate or elected official to quietly “get around contribution limits,” said Kim Alexander, project director for the Campaign Disclosure Project.

Montandon and Goodman aren’t the only Nevada politicians with PACs.

And though both are abiding by the laws governing the committees, critics question whether these two local politicians with an eye on Carson City are operating them in the best interest of voters.

Montandon is an announced candidate for governor, and Goodman is weighing a bid to become the state’s chief executive.

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Nevada law requires that PACs disclose only if they donate to a political candidate or “group of candidates”; otherwise they are never required to publicly detail their activities.

In addition, there are no limits on how much donors can give secretly or how much the PACs can in turn give to pet projects, causes or people (with the exception of political candidates).

By contrast, direct campaign donations are limited to $5,000 per candidate in each primary and general election,for a total of $10,000, and disclosed on contribution and expense reports published on the secretary of state’s Web site.

Montandon and Goodman have taken different approaches to disclosing their PACs’ activities.

Though state law didn’t require it, Montandon chose to list all of his PAC’s donors and funding recipients.

Included was the initial donation from an out-of-state businessman to launch Montandon’s PAC. A Park City, Utah, donor named Patrick Byrne, the chief executive of Overstock.com, gave $65,000 to NLVPAC in 2006 as listed in the first two contribution and expense reports Montandon filed with the state. That was 80 percent of what the PAC took in during that time.

Goodman took another route, declining to reveal anything about donors to his PACs.

In fact, it is impossible to know with certainty much of anything about his PACs — how much they’ve raised, who has donated or where the money has gone.

Goodman insists money from his two PACs — a group formed in 2000 called the Oscar B. Goodman PAC and OPAC, aka Oscar’s Political Action Committee, formed five years later — goes to “communal,” and not political, purposes. (The two PACs, Goodman said, have been incorporated into OPAC.)

In 2006 Goodman told the Sun that he would not release any information about OPAC’s donors out of concern that “some members of the media would try to misrepresent it if it was released.”

In a recent interview, Goodman basically took the same stance as did everyone else affiliated with the PAC who was contacted by the Sun. Goodman said he believed that his PACs’ donors “wouldn’t want their names released,” and thus it wouldn’t be fair to do so.

•••

Nevada’s campaign finance disclosure laws — and its record regarding how political money is publicly tracked — are abysmal, according to national watchdog groups.

In 2008 Nevada ranked 45th among the states in public disclosure efforts, according to the Campaign Disclosure Project, a joint effort from the UCLA School of Law, the Center for Governmental Studies, and the California Voter Foundation. Nevada was one of 10 states last year that received an “F” from the group based on the adequacy of its campaign disclosure laws, thoroughness of its electronic filing program and accessibility of disclosures, including online resources.

Critics claim that in different ways, both Goodman and Montandon have taken advantage of the weak state laws related to PACs.

Click to enlarge photo

Michael Montandon

Montandon has said he hopes his PAC will benefit North Las Vegas. When asked about NLVPAC, Montandon highlighted its nonpolitical donations, including to the Boy Scouts and the Boys &Girls Clubs.

“It’s a great vehicle to get things done that the city can’t do,” Montandon said.

But critics note that NLVPAC has relied heavily on out-of-state donors and has largely been a vehicle to donate to political candidates and campaign consultants, mostly Republicans.

Montandon raised $81,500 in 2006 and another $111,000 in 2008, records show.

Among the recipients of donations is Montandon’s gubernatorial committee, filings with the secretary of state show.

In Goodman’s case, one can only take the mayor’s word on where the money has gone.

No records, for example, have been filed with the secretary of state regarding OPAC.

Goodman said he has raised a total of about $210,000. OPAC’s current balance is $63,000.

According to Goodman, OPAC’s donations have all gone to worthy purposes, including local arts groups and other nonprofit organizations in need of money. It has given to the Las Vegas Philharmonic and Whirlygig, the nonprofit group that sponsors the First Friday arts walks downtown, he said.

City-related entities in need of cash assistance also have benefited, Goodman said. That has included $10,000 to the Fifth Street School for its unveiling celebration, and gifts to aid small conventions held here of city attorneys and city clerks offices from across the country.

The biggest contribution made by Goodman’s PACs is believed to be a $50,000 donation in February 2007 to Keep Memory Alive, the foundation for what was then called the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute.

A couple of records related to Goodman’s first PAC were filed in 2000. They showed that PAC had received $30,110 in contributions. The largest, for $25,000, came from Goodman’s mayoral campaign committee. The rest were primarily in the form of 10 checks of $500 from various real estate groups with an identical Buffalo Drive address.

The groups appear to be connected to local development company Focus Property Group.

Attorney Mark Fiorentino, who handles government affairs for Focus, said he recalled being asked to donate to OPAC soon after it was formed. PAC officials “were very clear,” he said, that the donations would go toward aiding the community, rather than political efforts.

City records show that Goodman’s first PAC did make at least one political contribution. On March 18, 2002, the PAC gave $5,110 to Goodman’s campaign fund.

Goodman said he makes all the decisions regarding OPAC, and not former Las Vegas City Councilman Michael Mack, whom he named as the group’s executive director in 2005.

Both Goodman and Mack said Mack was not paid a salary for his efforts, though Mack noted that he had been reimbursed for expenses. He said he couldn’t recall how much.

Campaign reform experts say determining which groups or causes might receive PAC money is important, but figuring out exactly who is giving to these groups is much more important. That’s because PAC donors in Nevada trying to influence an elected official can do so much more effectively — in private and without limits — than they could by simply giving to the official’s campaign fund.

“That’s why sunshine is so important,” Alexander said.

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