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Does Nevada Attract Unethical Politicians?

Casey Morell

State Senator Kelvin Atkinson and Assemblyman Mike Sprinkle are out of a job.

Atkinson is likely going to prison for stealing campaign funds. Sprinkle quit amid sexual harassment claims.

City politicians are also stumbling. The Las Vegas Review-Journal just reported Las Vegas city Councilwoman Michelle Fiore failed to report tax liens on financial disclosure forms.

Fellow Councilman Steve Seroka quit recently for reasons still unclear.

Two years ago, Councilman Ricki Barlow pled guilty to stealing campaign funds. 

Then there was U.S. Senator John Ensign’s resignation after stories of sexual trysts; State Senator Mark Manendo quitting for sexual harassment. 

And on and on and on. 

Does Nevada just attract bad people?

Current lobbyist and former State Senator Warren Hardy said that some of Nevada's laws are lax when it comes to campaign finances. 

"It's not hard for somebody to start slipping into that," he said, "Slowly but surely and then they don't get discovered." 

Hardy said someone might start off with something small like a suit but he said it is like "quicksand" and next thing a person knows they're taking much more from their campaign funds.

Former State Senator Patricia Farley agreed.

“I do think with access and availability and minimal laws and punishment people think they can do it and get away with it,” she said.

Farley said new legislators are given extensive training on ethics; however, she pointed out that good people will take that training and the laws seriously but there will always be people looking to find a way around those laws.

Steve Sebelius is the politics and government editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He said the Legislature needs to come up with a specific list of what campaign funds can be used for and what they can't.

"I think we need to have a list of appropriate uses of campaign funds and the Legislature needs to declare that everything not on that list is specifically prohibited by law," he said.

Sebelius admits that would be a sea change from how laws are currently passed in Nevada. Right now, all things are considered legal until they're specifically prohibited. 

Hugh Jackson is the editor of the news website the Nevada Current. He has been covering politics in Nevada for many years.

He said there needs to be a clearer definition of "personal use" when it comes to campaign finance laws.

Hugh said lapses in ethics aren't just about the politician but they have important consequences.

“When you are accustomed to having money come your way, all be it through a campaign fund, that changes your lifestyle and you’re being loved and adored by folks it is very easy to lose track of priorities and people suffer as a result,” Jackson said.

For Sebelius, Atkinson's missteps go beyond just the money he misused but also the impact it had on the Legislature.

Atkinson knew about the investigation and knew about a warrant served by the FBI, Sebelius said, but he didn't tell his colleagues and let them vote him in as Senate Majority Leader.

"His colleagues obviously were upset that he had caused the Legislature to be embarrassed once again and have politicians and the confidence in government eroded," he said, "But I think they were mad at him personally for not having shared that with the rest of the caucus."

Hardy did point out that the majority of the people elected to office are good people and only a very small number run into trouble. 


Patricia Farley, former state senator, Warren Hardy, lobbyist and former state senator, Steve Sebelius, politics and government editor, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Hugh Jackson, editor, The Nevada Current

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.