Thursday, May 31, 2012 | 4:13 p.m.
- On his public affairs show "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" today, Ralston will talk with the two Republican candidates in the contentious Senate District 9 primary race. It airs at 7:30 p.m. on KSNV-TV Channel 3.
Forget jobs and the economy. Ostrich eggs and a bikini photo have become the flashpoints in a Republican primary for a state Senate seat in southwest Las Vegas.
Such are the bizarre trappings in a key race for control of the state’s upper house, the Senate District 9 battle between Brent Jones, an attorney and businessman, and Mari Nakashima St. Martin, a former spokeswoman for Republicans.
The winner of the primary will face the Democratic candidate in a district where Democrats have a slight registration advantage. Republicans need to win four out of five competitive races this November to retake control of the state Senate.
The seat was left open unexpectedly when Sen. Elizabeth Halseth resigned amid an ugly public divorce, which opened an opportunity for Democrats to retake the seat that was lost with Halseth’s election.
The tenor of the increasingly bitter race between St. Martin and Jones seems sure to aggravate divisions within the Republican Party and ultimately send the victor to the general election with a limp.
Jones, who runs a bottled water business in Las Vegas, said he has the backing of tea party groups and Ron Paul supporters.
St. Martin, who works for a lighting company, used to serve as a spokeswoman for Rep. Joe Heck, R-Las Vegas, and the Nevada Republican Party. She has the endorsement of the Senate Republican caucus.
St. Martin’s campaign swung first in the exchange of character assault, depicting on its website an ostrich sticking its head in the ground with the text, “Warning! Did Brent Jones talk a mentally disabled man into giving up $30,000 for Brent’s ostrich egg business?”
Cited as its source was a 12-year-old news story from New Times Los Angeles about a lawsuit accusing Jones of selling two ostrich eggs to a man with a traumatic brain injury for $30,000 in 1994.
According to the article, Raul Lopez and his mother accused the Church of Scientology, Jones and others of bilking him out of money he received from the car accident that left him with brain damage. Both Lopez and Jones were Scientologists.
The case was settled out of court and is sealed.
In an interview with the Sun, Jones denied selling Lopez the eggs or any ostriches.
He said he had a Southern California ostrich ranch in the 1990s and boarded Lopez’s ostriches for $150 to $200 a month.
Jones said ostrich eggs, back then, sold for about $1,000. A trio of birds could cost between $20,000 and $30,000. The business failed, Jones said, when the FDA passed new regulations on ostrich slaughter. Jones said the birds produce a “healthy meat, a red meat, very lean.”
Jones said the lawsuit was baseless.
“There was no foundation for allegations against me, and I paid nothing” in the eventual settlement, Jones said.
Court documents, however, confirm a dispute between the two men in the failed ostrich-raising venture.
According to the statement signed by Jones in 1999, which Lopez’s former attorney, Ford Greene, provided to the Sun, the pair became acquainted after Jones represented Lopez in an arbitration hearing. They struck up a friendship and discussed going into business together.
“Owning ostriches seemed interesting and potentially profitable to both,” the court document said.
According to the statement, Lopez invested $12,000 in the ostrich-raising venture with Jones. Lopez also invested another $15,000 in a separate business owned by Jones.
After the ostrich farm failed, Jones agreed to repay Lopez $20,0000 and allow him to retain some shares in the separate business, according to the documents.
Jones argued he no longer owed Lopez any money after settling the dispute prior to the lawsuit.
“A lawyer who represents a brain-injured client and induces him into business transactions does not show the type of respect and morality that citizens would want in a state senator,” Green said in an email to the Sun.
St. Martin defended the website raising questions about the ostriches.
“Basically, he has a questionable past. Voters need to know what’s in his past,” she said of her opponent. “At the end of the day, Republicans will lose this seat if Brent Jones is the nominee. You can take that to the bank.”
Jones filed a lawsuit against St. Martin and her campaign this week, claiming the website is defaming. Jones also has an affidavit from a voter in the district accusing St. Martin’s campaign of accusing Jones of defrauding a mentally handicapped person and being incarcerated. The suit seeks more than $10,000 in damages.
As for the mental state of Lopez, Jones said: “After the automobile accident, he talked normal, he drove a car, he participated in mixed martial arts, he lived by himself. ... I don’t know, I wouldn’t say he’s mentally retarded.”
A counter-attack targets St. Martin, saying she is a re-tread of Halseth.
That claim, in which St. Martin is characterized as a “party girl,” is on a website launched by Republicans United, a new political action committee with which Jones said he is unaffiliated.
The site features pictures of St. Martin holding alcohol and socializing.
In an attempt to associate St. Martin with the scandal that triggered Halseth’s resignation from the Legislature, the site’s dominant photo is of Halseth in a bikini — a shot she posed for as part of a Maxim magazine contest following her divorce. For the photo, however, the bikini is blacked out with the word “censored,” suggesting that Halseth might be naked.
Halseth was 27 when she won the seat in 2010 in an upset over an incumbent state senator.
“Halseth simply lacked the maturity and experience for that important position,” the website said. “Did we learn anything from the mistakes of Senator Halseth?”
St. Martin, 27, who never worked for Halseth, said, “It’s a desperate attempt to paint all young females with a broad brush.”
After Ralston tweeted that fact, the group filed the necessary paperwork with the secretary of state late Tuesday night, said Scott Gilles, deputy secretary of state for elections.
“We’re aware that this group has published a website, and the site was likely live prior to them registering as a PAC,” Gilles said.
The office is investigating whether the group violated state law by failing to register before engaging in political activity and failing to file its campaign contribution and expenditure report.
A call to Republicans United, which listed an office in Washington state, wasn’t returned.
Jones said he was unaware of the site until Wednesday.
“I don’t have any specific affiliation with them,” he said.
But in an interview, he repeated charges about St. Martin that mirrors those on the website.
“I heard that Mari has a propensity to party, for lack of a better term,” he said. “It doesn’t mean she should not be qualified to run for political office.
“But do you know what happened to Elizabeth Halseth?”