It’s too bad lemmings don’t really leap into the ocean at regular intervals.
The myth of lemmings’ mass suicide would be a good metaphor for the self-destructive urges of the elected leadership of Nevada and Las Vegas. On average, about every 12 years, a new crop of elected officials lines up to be charged, tried and convicted of offenses serious enough to warrant getting booted out of office, impeached or imprisoned. Or, at the very least, publicly humiliated.
It may be too soon to write the political obituary of Assemblyman Steven Brooks, but the charges against him — domestic assault, wrestling with a police officer, threatening colleagues in the Legislature — might seem petty compared to the audacious efforts of elected predecessors. Another elected official, Constable John Bonaventura, is in hot water for a number of misdeeds, none of them criminal, but he’s gotten so much bad press that Clark County commissioners and legislators in Carson City are trying to eliminate his job.
Why is our state such a hotbed for political shenanigans? The same elements that fuel so many high crimes and misdemeanors: a lot of money flowing through the coffers of business and government, a lot of huge egos, a little sex for spice and, always, a love of power.
Perhaps the really surprising thing is that with all this money, and so many short memories, there haven’t been more scandals.
1869: EBEN RHOADES AND HIS APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION
Nevada was just four years old when the first elected leader was caught illegally enriching himself. Eben Rhoades was the state’s first treasurer, and he may have ultimately cost Nevada more than any elected scoundrel who came later. According to contemporary accounts, Rhoades sold state land, then poured the money into losing investments. He also plundered the state’s school fund, which promptly collapsed. According to former Nevada Treasurer Patty Cafferata, in 2005, Rhoades’ thefts have cost the state $30 million a year since — that’s how much it cost the state in lost interest the fund would have generated.
Sadly for the taxpayers, Rhoades never spent a day in jail. Reportedly a cocaine addict (which might help explain his questionable choice in investments), he died while visiting San Francisco in 1869. But he still left a legacy for many other elected officials to follow.
1898: POLITICS IS NOT FOR SISSIES
William M. Stewart, a mining lawyer who had been accused of bribing judges and juries, faced a well-funded challenge from Congressman Francis Newlands in Stewart’s effort to return to the U.S. Senate. Both Newlands and Stewart more or less openly bribed state legislators, who at that time chose senators, but that was only the beginning of the fun. Stewart hired some well-known thugs, including one certified killer, a gunslinger and a knife man, to threaten recalcitrant electors, and at least one legislator mysteriously went missing before the vote that sent Stewart back to the Senate. And while Stewart is long gone, his legacy remains. He helped establish the constitutional cap on taxes paid by the mining industry.
1905: LAS VEGAS FOUNDED IN CORRUPTION
The man mostly credited with founding Las Vegas as a watering stop on the railroad between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City was Sen. William A. Clark. Clark openly acknowledged bribing legislators in Montana, his home state, to become a federal senator in 1898. He was just as openly reviled by the media, including the former Reno newspaperman Mark Twain, who said this: “He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs. To my mind he is the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed’s time.”
Clark was so openly corrupt that his fellow senators refused to seat him during his first term. Nonetheless, Nevada legislators sent him back to the Senate in 1900. Clark County is unironically named in his honor.
1927: ALL THAT MONEY JUST LYING AROUND …
In the 1920s, Nevada Treasurer Ed Malley and Controller George Cole embezzled more than a half-million dollars in state funds — big money at that time, equal to about half of Nevada’s yearly budget. Unfortunately, their skills in getting elected and diverting money were better than their skills at picking investments. They sunk their money into speculative oil wells in Nevada, which came up dry. It took a jury of Nevadans three hours to convict them.
1982: ALLEGATIONS SINK SEN. HOWARD CANNON’S RE-ELECTION
Several witnesses in a trial of Teamster officials alleged that Sen. Howard Cannon took bribes from the union’s president, Roy L. Williams, in 1979. Cannon insisted that the charges were false, but they hurt him enough that he lost his re-election to Chic Hecht in 1982.
1983: OPERATION YOBO HAULS THEM IN
The FBI came a-callin’ in 1983 with a big pile of cash — and found a number of willing takers in what is still the state’s biggest corruption case. The FBI paid almost $38,000 to five elected officials, including two Clark County commissioners, a Reno city councilman and two state senators.
One of those convicted was the late Sen. Floyd Lamb, who took the largest bribe — $23,000 — in exchange for arranging a $15 million loan through the Public Employees Retirement System. Lamb, who has a park named for him in northwest Clark County, served nine months in prison. One of those who did not accept the bribe offered by the feds was Clark County Commissioner Paul Christiansen, who in 1996 would lose re-election to a former police officer, Lance Malone — later a key figure in the G-sting scandal of 2003-2006.
2004: CONTROLLER IMPEACHED, STAYS IN OFFICE, AND, OH, IT GETS WORSE …
Controller Kathy Augustine was charged and ultimately impeached for using state employees and equipment in her 2002 re-election campaign. Despite the impeachment in 2004, she refused to leave office and decided in 2006 to run for treasurer (without the backing of her Republican Party). Before the election, she was murdered by her husband, a nurse, who injected her with a paralytic drug. The nurse, Chaz Higgs, also was the nurse for Augustine’s first husband, Charles Augustine, who died in a similar fashion in 2003 and had traces of the drug in his system — but investigators never proved that Charles Augustine’s death was a murder.
In the 2006 treasurer’s election, although dead, Augustine received more than 18 percent of the vote.
2006: BRIBERY SCANDAL INSPIRES PUN, MULTIPLE CONVICTIONS
Second only to Operation Yobo in terms of the number of elected officials from Nevada who ended up in prison. Federal prosecutors successfully tied four Clark County Commission members to a sleazy Las Vegas strip-club operator. Four of the seven commissioners from the class of 2000 — a quorum — ultimately were convicted and did time in federal prison for taking bribes and public corruption charges in the “G-sting” scandal. Commissioners Dario Herrera, Erin Kenny and Mary Kincaid-Chauncey were convicted of various corruption charges. Former Commissioner Lance Malone was convicted of being the bag man delivering bribes to public officials in Las Vegas and San Diego.
2006: CLARK COUNTY RECORDER FINDS WAYS TO MAKE MONEY FROM HER OFFICE
Clark County Recorder Frances Deane, elected in 2003 to the office that oversees deeds and other official record-keeping, knew that a lot of people needed to see those documents, so she figured they’d be happy to pay her for the access to those records. Which is pretty much the definition of using her office for personal gain, a felony. Deane was removed from her office by a District Court judge in 2006 for malfeasance and ultimately convicted on felony corruption charges, a relatively easy charge to prove since she had described in detail her criminal plans to members of her staff and the media.
2006: CONGRESSMAN LOSES WAY IN PARKING LOT
Congressman Jim Gibbons was a nine-point favorite over his Democratic rival in his run to be Nevada governor when he decided to have some drinks at a Las Vegas watering hole with political advisers. What happened next is a matter of dispute. Gibbons claimed he offered a “helping hand” to a buxom cocktail waitress who was trying to make it back to her car; the cocktail waitress insisted that she had been sexually assaulted in the parking garage, and was then threatened by friends of Gibbons to withdraw the charge.
Despite the scandal, Gibbons was elected governor. He served one term.
2009: YET ANOTHER CLARK COUNTY COMMISSIONER FINDS A WAY TO BREAK THE LAW …
Commissioner Lynette Boggs-McDonald, now known as Lynnie Boggs, was once a rising star in the Republican Party. A Las Vegas council member, she was appointed to the County Commission in 2004. And she ran for election to the county seat in 2006. But along the way, someone made a videotape of her coming out of her house dressed in bathrobe and slippers. Problem was, the house wasn’t in her commission district, as required by law. She took at “Alford plea” to one misdemeanor charge in 2009.
2011: SEN. JOHN ENSIGN KEEPS FRIENDS AND WORKERS CLOSE
Sen. John Ensign had a winning smile, a terrific tan, a fantastic haircut and an affair with his best friend’s wife. His friend, Doug Hampton, worked in Ensign’s office as his top aide. After Hampton confronted Ensign with the fact of the three-year affair, Ensign found Hampton a job as a lobbyist and paid the Hamptons $96,000 in what Doug Hampton called hush money. Ensign hung in for a couple of years before resigning in 2011. He’s reportedly back to the job he trained for in college: veterinarian.
Whatever happens to Steven Brooks, there will certainly be more scandals bringing down elected officials here and in Carson City. One reason that this happens so regularly may be that oversight over our elected officials is very sketchy — and when the cat’s away, the mice do play.
The Center for Public Integrity gives Nevada a “D-minus” grade for the risk of political corruption, giving the state failing grades for internal auditing procedures, pension fund management, insurance commissions, disclosure requirements for lobbyists and ethics enforcement. So absent an angry rebellion by voters who simply have had enough, the elected leaders of Nevada and Las Vegas will find themselves moving from office to impeachment, prison and public humiliation.
Sources: Las Vegas Review-Journal, Las Vegas Sun, The Nevada Observer, The New York Times, Associated Press, CNN, Online Nevada.