When I heard Joe Dickey had retired as an FBI supervisory special agent and was starting his own private investigations business with an emphasis on political campaigns, I couldn’t help smiling.
Joe Dickey, the Las Vegas FBI’s most experienced public corruption agent, working on the inside of Nevada politics? Talk about a curveball.
But there he was, sipping a decaf at a Starbucks, laughing at the irony of mixing with members of the crowd he often worked against in a 20-year career spent almost exclusively in Southern Nevada.
For those unfamiliar with Dickey’s efforts, he led the “Operation G-Sting” investigation in the early 2000s, which led to the convictions of four Clark County commissioners, Erin Kenny, Dario Herrera, Mary Kincaid-Chauncey, and ex-cop Lance Malone. Two San Diego city council members also went down during the probe along with strip club mogul Michael Galardi, who was convicted for playing in both cities.
More recently, Dickey’s squad nailed Las Vegas City Councilman Ricki Barlow and state Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson for illegally skimming their campaign contributions for personal use. Both investigations led to convictions and have raised the bar in Nevada when it comes to the traditional practice of politicians using their campaign accounts as glorified ATMs. Before that, most politicians who tapped the campaign piggy bank received no more than stern looks and wrist slaps here.
Let’s just say Dickey may have trouble breaking the ice with some elected officials, people who have had to slug it out on the muddy campaign trail and raise small fortunes just to remain competitive. It’s not easy staying clean in the Silver State, and raising funds can also raise ethical dilemmas.
So, does he envision a problem developing trust?
“I hope not,” he says. “I’m not in law enforcement anymore. I take what I’ve learned and will try to help people stay out of trouble.” He also plans to bring his own ethics and judgment to the new assignment as the face behind JD Consulting & Investigations.
He wouldn’t be the first ex-fed or Metro detective to hang out a P.I. shingle, but few who’ve tried spent most of their careers working public corruption cases. Where some might see a stigma and suspect he might be too square for the game, Dickey sees an opportunity to raise the bar and remind skeptics of the many good people in politics.
“People think it’s worse than it really is, I believe,” Dickey says. “I think the vast majority of politicians are in it for the right reasons. There are the few that spoil the whole bunch, quite frankly.”
Campaigns run on more than cash stump speeches. They’re also fueled by research and background investigations. Consider it his strong suit.
“I’ve seen a lot and learned a lot,” says Dickey, whose wife is a local school teacher. The couple has a son and daughter in college. “As far as opposition research and vulnerability assessments, issue management, I think I can bring a lot to the table to help good people get elected and help good people stay in office.”
That investigative skill set could come in handy as the behemoth 2020 election cycle heats up and not just candidates, but contributors are scrutinized. Although he’s focusing on politics, which he calls a longtime passion, he’ll also pursue more traditional investigations involving business and the casino industry in a highly competitive market.
His desire to work for the kind of people he’d be proud voting for will be just one challenge to the new work. For a guy whose worn a white hat, the gray areas can be tricky.
With the bureau, his interest in politics led him to raise his hand in 1999 when Special-Agent-In-Charge Grant Ashley drew up and started the first public corruption unit in the history of the local FBI office, which had been kept busy over the years with graft cases involving county commissioners, state legislators, and judges.
That hotline approach generated leads that eventually turned into Operation G-Sting. Dickey came away from that investigation and others with perspectives on the nature of the beast. In the end, three current and one former commissioner were convicted.
“We had a quorum,” he says with some satisfaction. The case was like many corruption investigations in that it was essentially greed-based. Despite all the pay, perquisites and profile of elected office, a few politicians are never satisfied.
“It boils down to greed,” Dickey says. “It’s nothing more than greed. They get into it for themselves and not for the public’s interest. And greed takes over, and they make mistakes.”
Some successful candidates, especially those who entered the game with meager means, have difficulty adjusting when they suddenly find themselves in fast company.
“They start running in circles they’ve never run in before,” he says. “They kind of get starry eyed about it.”
In politics, forgetting where you came from can cost a candidate more than an election. It can also take away freedom and ruin a reputation.
Nevada’s traditional liberal campaign laws have only fed its reputation as a player’s paradise. Dickey recalls that during the G-Sting investigation, San Diego council members were running for office with $20,000 budgets. In Southern Nevada, commission races were being waged with seven-figure war chests.
And seeing officials Barlow and Atkinson use their campaign accounts for personal use made a mockery of the process. “Why take a bribe when you can accept a contribution?”
“Those were two cases where federally we went after state and local officials,” he says. “It had never really been done that way before. I’m really proud of that. It’s an accomplishment, a sea change that we were able to make. I hope that that will cause people to think twice about using their campaign funds for personal use.”
In a state with a rich history of political shenanigans and outright graft, Dickey’s expressed standards made me wonder whether his phone will ring. He doesn’t seem too concerned about that.
If it does, it’s possible Nevada politics will never be the same.
And who says that’s a bad thing?
John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith