Thursday, Oct. 29, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
Before July, Las Vegas Councilman Steve Ross was a consistent “yes” vote on Mayor Oscar Goodman’s plans for a new city hall.
It stands to reason. Ross is secretary-treasurer of the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council, a union group whose members — desperate for work these days — will benefit if the project is built.
But since July 1, Ross’ yes votes have given way to abstentions. At that day’s City Council meeting, Goodman mentioned the possibility that the pension fund of Laborers Local 872 might finance a portion of the project. Ross said there was a clear enough conflict of interest to cause him to bow out.
“Just that mere mention conflicts me, so I’m out,” Ross told the Sun in a recent interview.
Yet Ross’ recent actions might be too little, too late in the eyes of the Nevada Commission on Ethics. His many votes in support of the new city hall over the past couple of years, as well as his votes in favor of other construction projects that could benefit his union members, have landed him in a quagmire.
A complaint was filed against Ross with the commission in February. It has quietly but steadily moved forward.
Ross is facing allegations that he violated state ethics laws in seven instances to try to further the interests of his union.
The allegations are that Ross illegally voted four times — including three times on issues related to the city hall project and once regarding an interchange near U.S. Highway 95 and Horse Drive. He is alleged to have failed three times to disclose his relationship with his union employer before making the votes.
Four officials affiliated with the commission who have reviewed the case, including a bipartisan two-commissioner panel, have concluded Ross may have violated state ethics laws.
At a Dec. 9-10 hearing, Ross will face the full commission, which, in a worst-case scenario for the councilman, could fine him $25,000 and recommend that he be removed from the City Council.
Ross has consistently denied wrongdoing, and said that he has followed the guidelines set out for him by the Ethics Commission and the city attorney’s office. He said he expects to be fully vindicated.
“These are pretty cut-and-dried issues as far as I’m concerned,” Ross said. “I keep both offices very separate. I’m very, very cautious and very, very careful.”
Ross was first elected to the council in 2005 and reelected this year. He’s been aware of the potential for such conflicts of interest since 2007, when he was elected to his job leading the trades council.
Before pursuing his union job — which pays $105,000 per year, about $35,000 more than his council post — Ross sought an advisory opinion from the Ethics Commission to avoid the mess he’s in currently. Conflicts could arise in any number of ways, commissioners warned at the time, especially on projects that are competitively bid.
The former commission chairman, Jim Kosinski, warned Ross that he’d be “walking in a field of land mines.” Commissioner Tim Cashman was even more blunt: “I’ll guarantee you, you’ll be back here in front of us, whether you like it or not,” he said.
The ethics complaint was filed by three neighborhood activists — Tyson Wrensch, Steve Hecht and Renee Lella — at least one of whom, Wrensch, lives in Ward 6, the city’s northernmost district that Ross represents. It included 26 allegations stemming from votes Ross made from September 2007 to April 2009 (though the original complaint was filed in February, Wrensch filed supplemental allegations in April).
The complaint launched a multilayered Ethics Commission process.
After a probe that included interviews with nine witnesses, including Goodman, a commission investigator in May found merit in several of the claims against Ross.
Then a two-commissioner panel went further.
On May 27, Commissioners George Keele and Paul Lamboley determined that seven allegations needed to be heard before the full commission. According to a hearing transcript, Keele said Ross needed to remember that he has a responsibility to keep “a clear distance between his commitment in a private capacity to his business interests and his public responsibilities as a public officer.”
If that full panel concludes that Ross “willfully” violated ethics laws in at least three separate instances, he could be fined $25,000 — and possibly even lose his City Council seat. The matter would then be referred back to the council, which would have the power to discipline him.
Ross said he has heeded the Ethics Commission’s recommendations from the 2007 hearing, as well as the advice of the city’s in-house legal counsel, City Attorney Brad Jerbic, who will accompany Ross to the December hearing.
Ross has alleged that the complaint — filed during his reelection campaign against attorney Jennifer Taylor — was lodged for political reasons. The allegations, he says, were simply “a campaign tool.”
Lisa Mayo-DeRiso, a longtime neighborhood activist who has worked with Taylor and at least one of the initial complainants, Wrensch, denied that the allegations were politically motivated.
“I’ve always encouraged citizens to take advantage” of existing ethics laws, said Mayo-DeRiso, who with Taylor founded a group called North West Residents for Responsible Growth.
“It’s important that there’s a public forum on this. It’s not a political issue — it’s a conduct-in-public-office issue,” she said.
Wrensch, who works for a casino marketing company, agrees. The Bay Area native said he first took an interest in Ross after he learned a shooting range was to be built near his house. He wasn’t satisfied with Ross’ responses to his concerns about the facility.
So he started watching City Council meetings on television, and said he was disturbed by Ross’ voting patterns, especially as they had to do with union issues.
“You can see the clear conflict of interest,” Wrensch said. “He’s just been throwing this in our face.”