Thursday, Dec. 30, 2010 | 2:01 a.m.
Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval has remained on the payroll of the powerful law and lobbying firm Jones Vargas even as he’s named staff, prepared legislation and his budget, and begun readying himself to take office Monday.
Mary-Sarah Kinner, Sandoval’s spokeswoman, said his last day is Friday. He’s not been involved in the firm’s government-affairs practice, she said.
Sandoval, a Republican, was hired by the firm in 2009 after he stepped down from the federal bench to run for governor.
At the time, Sandoval was open about the fact that he was recruited to run by two longtime Reno friends, Pete Ernaut and Greg Ferraro, who are Republican lobbyists at two separate firms.
When hired by Jones Vargas, Sandoval addressed questions about whether the job created a conflict of interest. He said there were fire walls in place to protect against untoward influence of him by the firm’s lobbying clients.
Still, given the firm’s clients — the state’s largest gaming, mining, utility, banking, insurance and hospital companies and trade associations — the perception of a conflict has been difficult to avoid, especially given that he’s remained with the firm even as he’s planned his administration since his crushing November victory over Democrat Rory Reid. (As it happens, Reid is a partner in another powerful law and lobbying firm, Lionel Sawyer & Collins.)
“Do you think that’s a conflict of interest?” Dave Damore, a UNLV political scientist, asked rhetorically with a hearty laugh. “Yeah, obviously it raises a red flag. But at the end of the day, this is Nevada, and it’s not that surprising.”
By this Damore means Nevada has traditionally been a politically incestuous state, with a few players from a few dominant industries and their lobbyists running things in Carson City, the revolving door between private interest and public service often swinging with windy gusto.
Former state senator and current Republican Party Chairman Mark Amodei, for instance, was head of the Nevada Mining Association while still in office. Former Assembly Ways and Means Chairman Morse Arberry, a Democrat, began locking up lobbying clients before he left office.
Launce Rake, a spokesman for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, a liberal advocacy group, expressed disdain, but also resignation: “It seems inappropriate, but not surprising. Our state has been run for a long time by those with a deep-seated interest in maximizing profit and minimizing public benefit.”
During the 2009 legislative session, Jones Vargas clients included what is now Caesars Entertainment, International Game Technology, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Herbst Gaming, Eli Lilly, Merck, NV Energy, Nevada Bankers Association, Western States Petroleum, AT&T, Citi and Anthem, among others.