The limits on legislating ethical behavior

The system of legalized political incest has existed as long as there have been candidates, lobbyists and special interests.

It’s not complicated: Candidates run for office and solicit campaign donations. Lobbyists help raise money from special interests. Candidates becomes elected officials, who are then asked for votes by the same lobbyists representing the same special interests that financed their campaigns.

This is how government is set up to work for the people who need things from government. This is dog bites man from Washington, DC, to Las Vegas to Carson City.

For years, Nevada’s lawmakers have seized the high moral ground because of a law that prohibits them from raising money from these same lobbyists during the session. Of course, these same advocates have just enabled them to obtain their elected titles and can assist them in their re-election bids.

They also pour money into their coffers from the day they are elected until the prohibition kicks in. And, of course, legislators and lobbyists can have private conversations about past and future support without anyone being the wiser.

So the prohibition means very little. It’s cosmetic. Nothing more.

But it’s also more sweeping than lawmakers might readily acknowledge, and at least one already is flouting the law and another may have to confront it very soon. Here’s why:

The statute’s prohibition language, which also extends to 30 days before and after a session, is clear:

It is unlawful for a member of the Legislature, the Lieutenant Governor, the Lieutenant Governor-Elect, the Governor or the Governor-Elect to solicit or accept any monetary contribution, or solicit or accept a commitment to make such a contribution for any political purpose….

The last part, of course, is the most comical, as it would have us believe no winks or nods ever take place in the Legislative Building. But even if you have the remarkable ability to suspend your disbelief for that part, what is inarguable about that law is that it does not just apply to lawmakers raising money for themselves. Any political purpose.

Which brings me to the 2017 session and as early as it is, one freshman assemblyman already may be in some trouble, and a rookie Democrat may have difficulty navigating that clear prohibition.

Republican Assemblyman Jim Marchant was listed as a host last week on a fundraiser for Las Vegas Councilman Stavros Anthony. The Thursday event at Satay asked for a suggested contribution of $250 from the host committee and $100 from guests.

So Marchant was on an event that clearly was asking for money for – what was that phrase? – a political purpose. (He did not return a request to explain why he ignored that law and how much he personally helped raise for Anthony.)

I asked several smart lawyers about this and not one disagreed that the language of the law prohibits this. “To me, this is soliciting a monetary contribution for a political purpose – (the law) doesn't say ‘accept campaign contributions,’” one legal eagle said.

Marchant’s problem is real, and we will see if the secretary of state decides to do anything about it. But Democratic rookie William McCurdy has a prospective problem he will have to consider.

McCurdy is running to chair the state Democratic Party, and the election is fast approaching on March 4.

If McCurdy wins, and he has a very good chance to do so with much Establishment support, here’s the conundrum: A substantial part of his job will entail raising money for the Democrats. The law clearly prohibits him from doing so during the session, even though the implication of support for the party could be there every time he meets with a lobbyist, or for 30 days after adjournment.

So: If McCurdy wins, whatever the perceptions in Carson City might be, he will have to declare he will not accept checks on behalf of the party or have conversations about any donations until the summer. (I emailed him about this handcuff, and he did not reply.)

This is, by the way, but one of many reasons that I think it’s foolish for elected officials to be party officers. Not only does it force them to be more strident in their views and votes, but it’s almost impossible to distinguish their elected roles from their partisan one.

Marchant’s obvious violation and McCurdy’s potential one are hardly the stuff of Watergate. But they do highlight the incestuousness of the Nevada political system and the fig leaf that the session blackout law represents.

UPDATED, MONDAY, 9:30 AM: McCurdy responded.

Jon Ralston is the editor of the The Nevada Independent. He has been a journalist in Nevada for more than 30 years. Contact him at ralston@thenvindy.com