A former Nevada agency director is concurrently employed with the Nevada Public Utilities Commission and as a registered lobbyist for two mining companies.
Leo Drozdoff, who served as the well-respected head of the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources between 2009 and September 2016, is currently the “active commissioner” (essentially a substitute) at the PUC and is registered as a lobbyist at Albemarle Corp and Comstock Mining.
While Nevada law doesn’t definitely weigh in on whether or not the “active commissioner” at the PUC can also be employed as a for-profit lobbyist, a review of other state law provisions indicates that Drozdoff can legally hold both positions.
Nevada ethics law does require former regulators to take a one-year “cooling off” period before going to work for a business or industry that they previously regulated. Drozdoff said he was confident the section didn’t apply to him because he didn’t directly oversee mining companies in his previous position.
As head of the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Drozdoff oversaw several of the state’s environmental and outdoor regulatory bodies, including departments overseeing environmental protection, forestry, state lands and water resources.
The state’s Division of Environmental Protection does oversee the Bureau of Mining Regulation and Protection, the agency charged with ensuring “that Nevada's waters are not degraded by mining operations and that the lands disturbed by mining operations are reclaimed to safe and stable conditions to ensure a productive post-mining land use.” The agency did oversee at least one case involving Comstock.
Drozdoff said that outside of one informational group session involving Comstock several years ago, he hadn't dealt with either company while in his capacity as agency director. He said he received affirmative legal advice and double-checked the law before registering as a lobbyist.
"I’m very mindful of that statute," he said.
While mining companies (including Comstock and Albemarle) rarely appear before the PUC, there are exceptions. Newmont and Barrick Gold, major gold and silver mining companies, have recently filed orders with the commission to leave NV Energy.
Drozdoff said in an interview that he told the PUC that he was seeking outside employment when he was appointed to the position last year, and said his current employment doesn’t conflict with the PUC, which oversees electric, water, telecommunications and other utilities in the state.
“There’s nothing else that I’m working on that has any nexus to the PUC,” he said.
The “acting commissioner” is an appointed role that serves at the pleasure of the governor, and acts as a replacement when one of the PUC’s three full-time commissioners needs to recuse from a vote or decision. It was created in 2003 as part of a larger bill re-structuring how the commission operates.
Drozdoff was appointed to that role in Sept. 2016, with commissioner Ann Pongracz taking over that vacancy about a month later. But Drozdoff is still on call if one the commission’s three members needs to recuse themselves from a vote.
State law specifically notes that the “acting commissioner” position doesn’t receive benefits like PERS or group insurance afforded to other state employees, and only receives benefits like travel expenses and an $80 a day salary when other commissioners recuse themselves from a vote.
The position is defined as “unclassified staff” in state law, which are allowed to “pursue any other business or occupation” if they don’t conflict with the state job’s duties or hours and permission is obtained from a supervisor.
Drozdoff said that he informed the PUC when he was first appointed that he was seeking outside employment, saying he would obviously recuse himself on any matters that came before the commission that involved companies he was working for.
“At $80 a day I agreed to be an acting commissioner to be helpful,” he said in an email.
He noted that he hadn’t been called to step in to serve as a PUC commissioner since being hired by the two companies as a lobbyist.
Nothing in the Nevada law chapters on lobbying or ethics grant a blanket prohibition on “acting commissioners” from being employed in private industry (including lobbying), and Nevada Ethics Commission Director Yvonne Nevarez-Goodson said that lobbying or other employment bars in state law are usually spelled out for specific positions or appointments.
“Ethics in government law is not going to necessarily inhibit what someone does in their private capacity,” she said. “It’s only when they engage in public duties that conflicts with something private.”
Drozdoff is one of the seven lobbyists employed by Albemarle and the only one retained by Comstock listed on the state’s public lobbyist registry.
Albemarle Corp is a mining and chemicals company headquartered in North Carolina that currently operates a lithium mine in Esmeralda County. Comstock Mining is a gold and silver mining operation based in Northern Nevada. Republican Assemblyman Jim Wheeler and Democratic Sen. Pat Spearman have submitted a bill draft request that would create tax breaks for lithium mining in the state.
Drozdoff said that he visited the mine in Silver Peak once as a low-level engineer about 20 years ago, which was his last site visit to the facility. He said his main role as a lobbyist was largely advisory and to keep an eye on bills that could affect either company.
“I'm 51 years old," he said. "I don’t want to go play golf every day."