Nevada Commission on Ethics saw sharp increase in ethics complaints, fines in 2019 fiscal year

A new report from the Nevada Commission of Ethics details substantial growth in the number of ethics complaints and advisory opinions in the 2019 fiscal year compared with the previous year.

In a press release, the commission announced it imposed nearly $42,000 in fines for willful violations of the state’s ethics laws. That figure was driven by major issues in the board that regulates massage therapists and a gift card-related scandal at the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority (LVCVA). 

“FY19 marked the significant efforts of the Commission during the 2019 Legislative Session combined with staffing and resource demands resulting from more than double the case load from the prior fiscal year,” Yvonne M. Nevarez-Goodson, the commission’s executive director, wrote in the report. “These challenges, along with the continued priorities for outreach and education, signified the Commission’s focus in FY19.”

A previous, independent report from the Coalition for Integrity ranked Nevada eighth nationwide for enforcement and transparency of ethics rules, but was based on the 2018 fiscal year and didn’t take into account the increased workload of 2019. The commission imposed less than $4,200 in penalties last fiscal year.

There were a total of 123 ethics complaints received in FY19 by the commission, which only deals with state and local government employees and 28 warranted further investigation. In the previous fiscal year, there was a total of 55 complaints, and 39 of those were dismissed.

The six people who faced monetary fines from the commission were:

Jeffrey Witthun, director of the Clark County Family Support Division, who was given a civil penalty of $1,000 on May 9, 2018. The commission concluded that Witthun violated the ethics law in 2016 by using his position to create an unpaid summer internship for his son. 

Witthun later approved the decision to hire his son to a paid part-time position, according to the complaint. This action was witnessed and authorized by Witthun’s supervisor as well as the head of human resources.

“Mr. Witthun reiterated to the Commission that he was not aware that his conduct was in violation of the Ethics Law,” minutes of the meeting say. “However, he is more informed now and will ensure that his agency receives ethics training and is currently working on drafting a policy regarding nepotism for his agency.” 

Gerald Antinoro, the sheriff of Storey County, was given a penalty of $2,500 on Oct. 17, 2018. The violation stemmed from Antinoro allowing his wife to use the sheriff’s office in Virginia City for personal use on a Saturday, a time that the office would be closed to the public.

The ethics complaint was filed by the ex-husband of Antinoro’s wife when they met for a child visitation appointment and the wife didn’t want to meet in a park in Virginia City as planned. This instance was the third ethics complaint against Antinoro, who took office in 2011.

Antinoro appealed the ethics case to a court, but then concluded litigation himself by voluntarily dismissing the case with prejudice. The final opinion of the ethics commission was upheld. 

One of the previous ethics complaints against him was in 2014 when the commission investigated whether Antinoro prohibited a deputy who was running against him for sheriff from attending a non-profit event. The second was in 2016 when he used the official letterhead of the sheriff’s department to endorse Republican former congressional candidate Michele Fiore and was fined $1,000. 

Lawrence Weekly, the chair of the LVCVA, was issued a fine of close to $2,400 on Jan. 16, 2019. The violation came from using funds from the LVCVA to buy Southwest Airlines gift cards for a personal trip to Texas with his daughter, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. 

Weekly was only one of the members of the tax-funded LVCVA to be reprimanded for an ethics violation after a secret five-month investigation by the ethics commission concluded the CEO of the authority, Rossi Ralenkotter, misused close to $17,000 in airline gift cards. In total, there was $90,000 in gift cards used of which $50,000 couldn’t be accounted for, and Las Vegas police investigated allegations of theft.

Three former top executives were criminally charged with stealing and misusing the $90,000. Weekly was not one of those charged. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for March 26 to determine if the case will be moved to Clark County District Court to begin trial.

Judie Allan, a commissioner of Lander County, was issued a fine of $500 on May 22, 2019. Allan was accused of using her position to request the county manager make a settlement payout for her longtime boyfriend, a former county employee who had a wrongful termination case against the county.

Allan was living on a property owned by her partner when she requested that the county lawsuit be settled and $50,000 be paid to her partner. Allan also pursued her request directly to the board chair at his place of business and was told that any decisions would be made during a board meeting, according to the ethics commission complaint.

Commissioners pointed out “the seriousness of Allan’s conduct when measured against the public’s trust that public officers will not misuse their public position or influence to acquire economic opportunities or advantages for others.”

Lisa Cooper, the former executive director of the Board of Massage Therapy who resigned before the ethics violation, was issued a fine more than $25,000 on May 22, 2019. Cooper used her position to issue herself extra paychecks compared to the salary that was approved by the board, according to the complaint.

As executive director, Cooper was responsible for payroll administration and paid herself 10 extra paychecks between 2011 and 2014 totaling nearly $30,000, according to the complaint. An audit was performed in 2017 after Cooper resigned and revealed that there was no board approval for the extra paychecks. 

Cooper characterized the checks as appropriate payouts of unused leave time, but the board disagreed, saying that “Cooper acted in reckless disregard of the Ethics Law when she voluntarily or deliberately caused extra paychecks to be issued to herself and increased her vacation accrual without Board approval.”

Cathy Tull, the chief marketing director for the LVCVA, was issued a fine of close to $9,000 on June 17, 2019. The violation was for the improper and personal use of airline gift cards for her ex-husband and two sons, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal

Tull was also charged with theft and misconduct of a public officer. Ralenkotter, former senior director of business partnerships Brig Lawson and Southwest marketing executive Eric Woodson were also charged.