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October 24, 2014

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politics:

Secretary of state candidates urge tougher laws addressing gifts to officials

They are from different political parties, but the two candidates for Nevada secretary of state agree on at least one issue: State laws governing what financial information must be disclosed by elected officials need to be strengthened.

Both state Sen. Barbara Cegavske, a Republican, and state Treasurer Kate Marshall, a Democrat, said they would start by pushing to amend state law to explicitly define what constitutes a gift to an elected official.

“We never found a good definition, and that is something I think we should work on, absolutely, because I think everybody wants to be upfront and tell everything,” said Cegavske, an 18-year veteran of the Legislature. “I don’t think anybody is trying to hide anything or do anything, but they do want to understand the law.”

For instance, Cegavske said that she’s a board member of two policy groups: the Education Commission on the States and the American Legislative Exchange Council. These groups provide her hotel rooms and meals at biannual meetings.

She did not disclose these expenses on her own financial disclosure form because the state pays dues to each, so she said she does not believe the expenses are gifts.

“I have faithfully done my financials and all of my reporting and have been very open,” she said. “If I need to make an amendment (to the report), I’ll be happy to do that.”

In an attempt to further define what needs to be reported to the public, she said she would use her experience working with the Legislature to address gift reporting.

Marshall said the Legislature needs to address the definition of a gift “head on” because “people need to know who is receiving gifts and who is receiving certain offers, right? They need to be able to follow the money.”

She said she would also introduce a separate bill to include cash-on-hand reporting on campaign contribution and expenditure reports. Under current guidelines, it’s difficult if not impossible to tell how much money candidates and elected officials have.

“In order to follow the money, we need to see who has given them money, how they’ve spent the money and then how much is in the bank; that’s just basic accounting,” she said.

Finally, she said that these reports need to be audited.

Elected officials who have attended conferences or events sometimes claim that they did not receive gifts from lobbyists or other special interest groups and instead used campaign funds to pay their own way. Campaign expense reports often do not clearly show this information, but audits would reveal whether or not these claims are true.

“If you’re going to put rules on the books, you’re going to need to be able to enforce them, so you’re going to need the capability to provide some kind of review or some ability to review,” Marshall said. “You can have penalties or audits or periodic reviews; there’s lots of different ways. But we do need to talk about how do we have some of these rules on the books and then how do we make sure they’re being followed.”

How other states handle it

Other states have taken various approaches in dealing with gifts to elected officials.

In most states, elected officials have to publicly disclose gifts they’ve received.

In states like Colorado, lobbyists are banned from giving gifts to public officers. Often, states such as Utah require lobbyists to disclose what they spend on elected officials. In California and Arizona, state law puts a monetary cap on how much any one individual or lobbyist can give to an elected official in a year.

In Nevada, lobbyists cannot give gifts worth more than $100 to a legislator in any one year. The law, however, has an exception for food, drink and entertainment, and the law only applies to the Nevada Legislature.

Nevada’s law puts no other cap on the monetary value of gifts any one person or group can give to an elected official. Nevada law deems all gifts legitimate unless they “would tend improperly to influence a reasonable person in his position to depart from the faithful and impartial discharge of his public duties.”

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