On a dark and stormy night, in a black castle atop a spooky mountain, a cast of characters that resemble Montgomery Burns, Sideshow Bob and other nefarious types from The Simpsons cackle as they plan for total world domination by the Mormon Church.
When Nevadans talk about the so-called Mormon Mafia, I think that’s what comes to mind — a setting in which LDS overlords exchange mystical handshakes as they diagram evil schemes to be carried out against non-Mormon heathens. I can remember back some 25 years or more, hearing stories about the Mormon Mafia, the power it wields and the length of its tentacles.
I now find myself in the middle of an incredibly nasty political firefight involving the Mormon Mafia mystique, a smattering of small-town back-scratching and back-stabbing, and a dash or two of raw ambition.
As mentioned in this space a few weeks ago, Boulder City’s longtime police chief, Tom Finn, alleges he was targeted by BC’s Mormon power structure for a variety of reasons and in several ways. Since that column was published, Finn was fired. It’s something he dreaded but fully expected.
Finn vowed he would not go quietly, and he is keeping his word. He has filed five ethics complaints, alleging assorted transgressions by Mayor Roger Tobler, councilman and mayor pro-tem Cam Walker, City Manager David Fraser and City Attorney Dave Olsen. Finn thinks they conspired to get rid of him and that they crossed the legal line numerous times over the past year, in large part because they all watch each others’ backs. It will be up to ethics officials to determine if his complaints have merit. Finn also filed a federal EEOC complaint and is fighting a two-front legal war against attorney Stephen Stubbs, who is also a Mormon and who represents the Mongols Motorcycle club. So far, Stubbs has prevailed in court.
I don’t know how all of this is going to play out. I doubt that BC officials ever had a formal meeting to plot Finn’s demise, but there is a pretty substantial paper trail to show that, at different times and for different reasons, the officials named in the ethics complaints did things behind the scenes to either cause Finn grief or to second-guess his police work, something none of them are qualified to do. They all deny having any animosity toward Finn and insist they didn’t do anything to undermine him until after he filed a lawsuit in late November. That claim of noninvolvement is demonstrably false.
I had the chance to interview Mayor Tobler, for instance. Tobler called my boss at KLAS Channel 8 to gripe about not being included in my first two TV reports about the Finn allegations. The mayor informed my producer that someone other than Knappster should handle the questioning during the interview. Uh huh. He called the next day to inform us that he didn’t want his remarks to be interrupted by any of those pesky … what do you call them? … questions. He would say what he came to say without nagging interruptions by an actual interviewer. He called yet again to say that he also did not want his remarks to be edited in any way. (Maybe an hour or two of commercial-free prime time? Sure, Mr. Mayor. )
Maybe that is how the news media operates on the Planet Tobler, located in the Tobler Nebula. But my producer, Ian Russell, informed him that we don’t abide by Tobler rules here in the big city. The mayor and I had a somewhat tumultuous exchange for about an hour, and he made a fairly dramatic point of showing me that he would be making his own recording of the discussion. I knew right then that no matter what pieces of the interview I used in my report, Tobler would pitch a bitch about it and claim he was quoted out of context. It’s coming, I’m sure.
The most amazing idea expressed by the mayor is that the Mormon Mafia does not exist, that they all attend the same church but they really don’t talk all that much. He also informed me that there has never been any discussion about slipping Mormon doctrine into the operation of the city itself — a charge that, to my knowledge, no one has made. The fact that Mormons control nearly every single political office, elected and appointed, is just one of those things, I guess. Kismet. Coincidence. A historical aberration, Tobler suggested, not the norm at all. This news should come as a total shock to pretty much everyone who lives in Boulder City, where Mormon control of government is widely seen as a given.
On Planet Tobler, voters choose Mormon candidates because the public is so well-informed and smart. Ah, yes, the wily, well-informed voters. Whenever a politician praises the intelligence of the average voter, be skeptical. Tobler says it would be impossible for Mormons to seize control of city government by themselves since they are only 16 percent of the population. Therefore, the wise citizenry of BC must be choosing Mormon candidates purely on the basis of their honesty and accomplishments. Why, it was noted, in the last election, at least two council candidates had no challenger at all. He made it sound like this was a good thing.
If only things were so clear here on Earth. As any seasoned political consultant will tell you, Mormons historically vote as a bloc, and in high percentages. In a small arena like Boulder City, where municipal elections take place in off years and the turnout is comparatively low, a motivated constituency can make a huge difference. What’s more, as Tobler told me, the council seats are decided at large. BC voters can vote for two council candidates and also for a mayor, meaning the same Mormon constituency that elected Tobler could cast ballots for the other two Mormon candidates who ran at the same time. That’s a three-fer, and it means Mormon voters have immense influence on the outcome of elections if they stick together.
The suggestion that no one challenged the incumbents because they are doing such a great job is laughable to longtime BC political figures. One former council member says qualified candidates don’t run because they know there is little they can accomplish even if they could win. Any proposals they might have would be killed or co-opted by the Mormon bloc on the council. Since 2006, city leaders have added an element of fear to the electoral equation. Eight times, citizens have tried to buck the Mormon power structure by sidestepping the council with petition drives, including an effort to install term limits. And what did these well-intentioned citizens get for their efforts? The city filed lawsuits against them, made them hire their own attorneys at considerable expense, all because they exercised their rights as Americans. So it is not exactly a ringing endorsement of the current leadership when non-Mormons choose to give up on the political process because they’ve been pummeled into the dirt with lawsuits financed with their own money.
I am uncomfortable bringing up some of these issues because they tend to reinforce stereotypes that are not always true. The LDS church has always encouraged public service because it is a noble undertaking. I think some of the people who have grown accustomed to running the show in Boulder City use their religion as a shield and as a bludgeon against enemies. There is a palpable sense of entitlement in some of them, and a holier-than-thou attitude that has more to do with small-minded, small-town superiority complexes than with their faith.
What’s been going on in Boulder City has nothing to do with Mormonism. It’s about power, pure and simple.
GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.