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August 23, 2014

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POLITICS:

What we learn — and don’t — from Nevada politicians’ financial disclosures

Nevadans can only hope their elected officials and political candidates are honest when it comes to reporting how much money they raise and spend to get elected.

Why the cynicism? Because the annual disclosure statements and campaign finance reports filed with the state are deeply and fundamentally flawed.

State law compels public disclosure every January of how much money office holders raise and spend during that reporting period, their sources of income, what property they own, who they owe money to, what businesses they have a stake in, and what gifts they’ve received. Candidates face the same requirements in March after they file for election

They file these disclosure documents with the ethics commission and the Nevada secretary of state’s office. But officials with both agencies acknowledge that laws allow for convenient oversights and the easy concealment of information.

For instance, officeholders and candidates don’t have to report how much money they carried over from previous campaigns, so voters — and their political opponents — are hard-pressed to figure how much cash these candidates have on hand.

Even the numbers that are reported can be gamed, because the secretary of state doesn’t have the staff to audit these reports, said staff at Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller's office.

“I find that to be an interesting oversight, if you will,” said Caren Cafferata-Jenkins, executive director of the Nevada Commission on Ethics.

She said providing more transparency and authenticity to campaign finance, ethics, and public record and open meeting laws would “enhance and enlarge the public’s trust in government.”

Last year, Miller tried to promote just that, by sponsoring a bill requiring disclosure of cash-on-hand in campaign accounts. The bill also would have defined what gifts elected officials can receive and who’s allowed to give and receive them, and it would have required candidates to electronically disclose campaign contributions within 72 hours of receiving them. The Nevada Legislature ignored the bill, and it died.

Miller modeled his legislation on laws on the books in Iowa, which was ranked No. 7 among states in a 2012 Center for Public Integrity ranking. In the same survey, Nevada ranked 42nd with an overall grade of D.

In Iowa, elected officials and candidates have to disclose how much cash they have in campaign coffer. The state’s Ethics & Campaign Disclosure Board not only audits the campaign accounts, but compares ending balances of the last report to the beginning balance of the next report to make sure they match, said Megan Tooker, executive director and legal counsel for the watchdog agency.

In order to not add a burden to elected officials or require them to retain an accountant, Tooker said the state’s electronic filing system does all the math and spits out an ending balance.

“It’s effortless,” she said. “It’s not burdensome.”

Miller established a similar electronic filing system in Nevada called Aurora but Nevada does not require cash-on-hand reporting or audits of campaign accounts.

Cafferata-Jenkins of the state ethics commission said it’s the responsibility of the Legislature and the people who elect state legislators to strengthen laws governing open meetings, campaign disclosures, public ethics, financial disclosures, and public records.

“I think the public needs to demand more information and access to information and accountability and when the public demands that, the Legislature generally responds,” Cafferata-Jenkins said.

But legislators last year said that the public isn’t clamoring for campaign finance reform or other tweaks to ethics and disclosure laws.

“I have not had a constituent ever ask me for any of this,” said Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, during an April 11, 2013, legislative committee hearing on Miller’s bill. “The only people who want the information are reporters and your (political) opponents.”

Cegavske is now a Republican candidate running for secretary of state.

“The ethics commission has for many years asked for additional staffing and additional funding,” Cafferata-Jenkins said, noting that more money could pay for more people to conduct investigations and audits. “It appears to the public at least that these programs may not be priorities of government at the moment.”

She said she’d like to “see more teeth” in disclosure and transparency laws.

But without changes to state law, Nevadans will live with the status quo and, as Cafferata-Jenkins said, “hope and pray” that politicians are telling the truth.

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