Space cars and new schools – the power of private enterprises to deliver public benefit

A billionaire flew his car into space this week, which now is “driving” out towards the asteroid belt with a dummy in a spacesuit at the wheel. I’m not often giddy when reading the news these days, but there was no other word for how I felt watching videos of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch this week. It’s not just because it tugged at every string in my nerdy, science-fiction-loving heart. There’s so much inspiring symbolism and practical lessons to be gained from that event.

This may surprise many youngsters out there, but there was a time when Democrats had no problem with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, including giving him direct control over some of our most critical national security assets. That long-ago era was 2011, when the space shuttle was retired, and the government of the United States of America no longer had the domestic capability to transport our own astronauts into orbit. Instead, we had to pay Soviet Russia to let our guys hitch rides to the ISS. To any kid who grew up with America kicking commie butts in space since at least 1969, this is nothing short of a national embarrassment.

But while this neglect was dangerous and inexcusable, President Obama’s lack of interest in space policy may ironically be his most important legacy. For decades, our space program had consisted of periodically sending a few government employees into low earth orbit at ridiculously high costs to taxpayers, enormous risks and diminishing returns. All of NASA’s best stuff was now being done by robots, which is cool and all, but way less inspiring to kindergarteners than space-suited hero types walking on the surface of other worlds. Mr. Obama uncharacteristically did not seek to improve this situation with vast, spendy new government programs and bureaucrats, but rather opened the doors to private companies to get into the space shuttling business. The result?  Competition and innovation, resulting in billions of dollars saved and Americans (some right here in Nevada!) building and launching spaceships again.

National security demands that the US government be involved in the space business. But by opening up the delivery of space services to the private sector, the Obama administration gave a reason for innovative companies to invest in building a space travel infrastructure, which will in turn provide an incentive to those private companies to explore other markets and missions, such as mining, tourism, manufacturing and even super audacious advertisement schemes for car companies. Long after Obamacare is a barely remembered “what were they thinking?” footnote in economics textbooks, the last administration’s paradigm shift away from the government monopoly on spaceships will be paying dividends for all mankind.

~~~

There’s a big pile of dirt near my house that makes me almost as giddy as Elon Musk’s “Starman,” and for a lot of the same reasons.

On Dec. 1, that pile of dirt was an unbroken patch of sagebrush. A formal groundbreaking ceremony took place a few weeks ago. By this fall, it will be my kids’ school, Doral Academy of Northern Nevada. Doral, a charter school in its first year here in Reno, due in part to inexplicable foot dragging by a Reno City Council for whom education is far too low of a priority, is holding classes this year in a church while the new building is under construction.

Doral focuses on science, engineering, math and technology, integrating the arts into the teaching of traditionally less exciting academic subjects. The teachers have the flexibility and autonomy to experiment, innovate and tailor instruction to the needs of individual children, in a way that the large, moribund bureaucracy of the WCSD never allowed. My kids are both happy and thriving – a far cry from when my daughter, who was already reading chapter books in kindergarten, was bored literally to tears because the rigidity of a one-size-fits-all curriculum hobbled educators and students alike.

The Washoe County School District is like NASA – an organization with a worthy mission and a lot of dedicated, talented people working in the rank-and-file, but stymied by administrative bloat and indecision, lack of accountability and absurdly inflated costs.

When we voted in 2016 to raise taxes for school construction, we were told that a new public elementary school would cost $23 million to build. Months after passage, suddenly that number became $34 million. The first one will take nearly two years to build on donated land – almost twice as long as the Empire State Building, for crying out loud!  The newest high school is projected to take four years (the Hoover Dam took five), and the remaining building schedule is just as inexplicably turgid.

When done right, charter schools can deliver higher quality public education at less cost. If we let them, they will improve traditional public schools too, not just by providing an escape valve for increasing student populations, but by proving that we don’t need to put up with bloated building expenses and disempowered classroom teachers.

Delivery of a quality education for every child ought to always be a core mission of local governments. But that doesn’t mean we need to limit ourselves to inefficient government monopolies when exploring how best to successfully achieve that mission.

~~~

Freedom isn’t magic, and innovation and experimentation come with their own setbacks and failures. Tesla continues to hemorrhage money and is far behind its automobile production goals, and the “Starman” will overshoot its planned Mars rendezvous. Not every charter school will be amazing, and even the best will have their own growing pains.

There are plenty of areas of public life where the government will – and should – always play a major role. Education and protection and projection of our national interests in outer space are just two examples. But government involvement need not necessitate government monopolies, and policymakers will be wise to recognize the benefit of freeing private innovators and entrepreneurs in meeting the public needs.

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a deputy district attorney for Carson City. His opinions here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at orrin@orrinjohnson.com.

Prison workers aren't gaming the system; poor management and inadequate staffing are forcing overtime

By Harry Schiffman

Recently, The Nevada Independent published an article on overtime in Nevada’s Department of Corrections (NDOC), where the deputy director of Support Services alleges that corrections officers are intentionally “gaming the system” and that “there is collusion going on in order to generate schedules that would result in ‘feathering one’s nest.'"

The local chapter of AFSCME (the American Federation of State, City and Municipal Employees), the organization that represents state workers, wishes to present the other side of the story. In reality, it is poor management and inadequate staffing that has created the need for overtime, resulting in the current fiscal crisis.

In order to meet the governor’s budget, the NDOC intentionally has underestimated the number of correctional officers necessary to efficiently operate the facilities. The Department’s Administrative Regulations have prescribed procedures for responding to a shift vacancy that should be used before resorting to overtime, but management doesn’t follow them because of purported budgeting constraints.

The majority of overtime in Nevada’s correctional institutions is mandated overtime, not voluntary. The Indy article itself notes that only 7 percent of overtime is on a voluntary basis, meaning that 93 percent of the overtime is a forced mandate that officers come in on their scheduled time off. If there was collusion, it stands to reason that these numbers would be vastly different.

In addition, the article indicates that the majority of overtime is in Southern Nevada, again intimating that there is regional collusion. In fact, the difference is that the facilities in the north run on 12-hour shifts while the facilities in the south are on 8-hour shifts. The 12-hour shift rotation is significantly more efficient with less call-ins and fewer issues with covering posts. If 12-hour shifts were implemented in Southern Nevada, you would see the same effect.

The fact is that staff morale among corrections officers is at an all-time low, due in large part to staff shortages. The treatment and disrespect that these officers experience on a day-to-day basis is one of the reasons that officers do not want to volunteer for overtime.

The auditors who completed their research failed to speak to any officers who could share actual experiences with overtime and present concrete solutions to address the issue. As the union that represents state employees in Nevada, we offer our services to The Nevada Independent to interview workers or get information that pertains to the people who are most impacted. We want you to have the whole story.

Harry Schiffman is president of AFSCME Local 4041.

 

The Clark County district attorney’s office would rather imprison innocent people than admit to mistakes

By Drew Johnson

Kirstin Blaise Lobato spent nearly half her life in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. The 35-year-old Panaca native was wrongfully imprisoned for the 2001 murder of Duran Bailey in Las Vegas – even though she wasn’t in Las Vegas at the time.

On Dec. 19, Clark County District Court Judge Stefany Miley threw out Lobato’s conviction after attorneys from Chesnoff & Schonfeld and the Innocence Project presented expert testimony that Lobato was three hours away from the scene of the crime at the time of Bailey’s murder.

Lobato became a free woman on Dec. 29, when Clark County District Court Chief Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez finally dismissed the murder charges at the request of the district attorney’s office. It was the first time in her adult life she set foot outside of prison.

However, the DA’s office revealed that the decision to stop fighting Lobato’s release had nothing to do with her innocence. Instead, Deputy District Attorney Sandra DiGiacomo stated: “Although we fully believe in her guilt, as did the 24 members of our community who found her guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, our resources are such that we are electing not to proceed with the third trial of this defendant, particularly considering the more than 15 years she has served in prison.”

This troubling response is reflective of Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson’s problematic approach to wrongful convictions.

Although Wolfson created a Conviction Review Unit in 2016, the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center (RMIC) was skeptical of the undertaking. At the time, RMIC noted Wolfson’s lack of collaboration with “local and national innocence projects, legal defenders associations and other key criminal justice professionals,” a hallmark of other successful conviction integrity units.

The organization was also “equally disturbed by the proclamation contained in Mr. Wolfson's statement that his office ‘stands by all of our convictions’.”

“Considering the fact there have been 1,791 exonerations in the United States [as of May 2016], the likelihood of human error and the known causes of wrongful convictions that plague our justice system, we are disappointed Mr. Wolfson believes there have been no wrongful convictions in Clark County," the RMIC stated.

The nearly 16 years Kirstin Blaise Lobato sat in prison for a crime she didn’t commit is proof the Clark County DA’s office is guilty of wrongfully convicting innocent people.

The well-publicized case of Fred Steese is another example of the fallibility of Clark County prosecutors. In 1995, the Clark County DA’s office tried Steese for murder, and was able to convict him for the crime only after committing numerous ethical and constitutional violations, from hiding exculpatory evidence to concocting entirely false theories.

In 2012, the same year that Wolfson took office, the Nevada 8th Judicial District Court overturned Steese’s conviction and issued an order of actual innocence, an incredibly rare judicial finding. Rather than using his new position to tackle issues of prosecutorial misconduct head-on, Wolfson remained unmoved by Steese’s innocence and worked to maintain the conviction.

Even though it was clear that Steese was totally innocent and wrongly imprisoned, Wolfson demanded that Steese’s release from prison be conditioned on his acceptance of an Alford plea – a controversial plea that simultaneously allows defendants to maintain their innocence while prosecutors maintain that their original decision to prosecute was just.

Wolfson’s six years in office have been spent fighting against Steese’s exoneration. And when lawmakers drafted legislation to combat the type of misconduct that occurred in Steese’s case, Wolfson’s office not only opposed the bill, but ignored established fact and suggested that there had been no wrongdoing.

The people of Clark County deserve a prosecutor who seeks justice, truth and fairness, and recognizes that human beings are fallible. Instead, we’re stuck with a DA who would rather let innocent people rot in prison than admit that his office made an error.

Until the Clark County district attorney’s office stops wasting time and resources trying to keep people like Kirstin Blaise Lobato and Fred Steese locked up for crimes they didn’t commit, Clark County residents should have no faith that Steve Wolfson and his office won’t continue to imprison innocent people.

Drew Johnson is a Las Vegas resident who serves as a senior scholar at the Taxpayers Protection Alliance and a contributor to Newsmax and The Daily Caller.

Use the proceeds of the VW court settlement to build electric car infrastructure

By Mary House and Tom Polikalis

An investment in electric vehicles, charging stations and infrastructure like electric highways would be a boost for the Silver State’s economy and a boon for our environment. That’s why clean energy advocates support the allocation of funding from a legal settlement with car manufacturer Volkswagen to electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

This public money is a result of a 2016 federal court settlement with Volkswagen, which admitted its diesel vehicles were rigged to cheat emissions tests. VW agreed to pay $2.8 billion to states to reduce diesel pollution. This month, the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP) took public comment in Reno and Las Vegas on its plan to use the funds to update the state’s public truck and bus fleets to more efficient vehicles.

NDEP has wisely allocated the maximum amount allowed under the settlement -- 15 percent of the funds -- to light-duty electric vehicle charging infrastructure. But 80 percent of the funds are set to be invested in truck and bus conversions, and the draft criteria are too favorable toward diesel-to-diesel replacements. We can and should go further and support a transition to zero emission electric vehicles. This will ensure Nevadans get the greatest clean energy and clean air benefits from the settlement.

When combined with Nevada’s rapidly developing clean rooftop or utility scale solar, the emissions for operating an electric vehicle shrink to essentially zero. Even when the electricity is generated by a fossil fuel plant, these vehicles are cleaner than those powered by gasoline, typically producing less than half of the carbon dioxide of a conventional car.

Besides climate-polluting CO2, gas-powered vehicles also produce particulate matter, ozone and carbon monoxide. This is particularly important for communities in crowded urban areas, where there is a lot more traffic. The tailpipe gases from all those cars and trucks can have negative health impacts, especially on children, people who already have health issues and older people. Electric vehicles result in cleaner air, a better quality of life and reduced health-care spending.

NV Energy has pledged to double renewable energy generation by 2023. If the utility follows through on that pledge, a smart way to put that clean energy to work is with electric vehicles. Not only can electric vehicles be powered by renewables, but their batteries can store renewable energy for use when the sun isn’t shining.

Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Legislature already recognize that clean electric vehicles are smart for our economy and for consumers – that’s why they’re building out the state’s electric vehicle highway. This technology lessens our dependence on fossil fuels, improves national security, costs less to operate and maintain than combustion engines and reduces harmful air pollution. The state where Tesla and other businesses are investing should fully seize this opportunity to replace diesel public transit, school buses and state fleets with electric vehicles.

We applaud NDEP for giving the public an opportunity to weigh in on this issue and for making the maximum investment in charging stations. But to get the maximum public benefit out of these settlement funds, we need to lean into an electric vehicle industry that is already paying economic dividends in our state.

Disclosure: NV Energy has donated to The Nevada Independent. You can see a full list of donors here.

Dr. Mary L. House is the First Lady of Mountaintop Faith Ministries in Las Vegas and CEO of Caring, Helping & Restoring Lives, which helps families of the unemployed and underemployed, as well as women who are survivors of domestic violence in Southern Nevada.

Tom Polikalis is the Nevada representative for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project.

 

Douglas County GOP embarrasses Itself

By Edmund L. Andrews

It isn’t easy for a tiny outpost of the GOP to make itself into a statewide laughingstock, but the Douglas County Republican Party seems determined to make it happen.

Party apparatchiks have selected Joe Arpaio, the disgraced former sheriff and convicted criminal from Arizona, to be the keynote speaker at their annual Lincoln-Reagan fundraising bash on Feb. 18.

If you aren’t up to speed on Arpaio, you can read up on his sordid history herehere and hereThe short version is this: Arpaio has a well-documented history of illegal racial profiling, chronic violations of civil rights and all-around hate-mongering.

In his war on undocumented immigrants, Arpaio and his deputies systematically targeted and arrested Latinos – and anyone else who looked like a possible immigrant – in traffic stops, workplace raids and neighborhood sweeps. He incarcerated legions of people at his “Tent City” in the Arizona desert, where detainees suffered in temperatures as high as 130 degrees. A federal court in Arizona ruled that many of his practices were illegal. When Arpaio ignored a court order to clean up his act, another federal judge found him guilty last May of criminal contempt of court. If President Trump hadn’t pardoned him, Arpaio might well be behind bars right now.

As if all that wasn’t enough, the aging lizard still promotes the long-disproven “birther” lie that President Obama was born in Kenya. Even Trump, the most famous birther of them all, finally admitted that the charge was bogus. Not Arpaio: Just last month, he declared on TV that Obama’s birth certificate is “phony.”

Ok, it’s a free country, and a creep is free to spew whatever vile drivel he wants. If he wants to run for the Senate in Arizona, good luck with that.

The real question for me is this: Why on earth are Douglas County Republican leaders bent on bringing shame down on their (and my) county? Why are they hitching their star to a reviled bigot with a rap sheet? Is this some new version of “Law and Order?”

This is a beautiful and peaceful place, with Lake Tahoe on one side and the Carson Valley on the other. It’s not at all a place of hatemongers. The last thing that anybody here should want to do is make us the poster-child for ignorance and intolerance.

The sniveling justifications for all this have been laughable.

The chairman of the Douglas County Republicans, Dick Schwabe, told the Reno Gazette Journal that “many people have been convicted of misdemeanors.”

 Well, sure. But Arpaio didn’t get a parking ticket. He’s guilty of criminal contempt of court. As the judge noted, he willfully ignored the earlier court order that was handed down after a lengthy trial over extremely important civil rights violations.

Another local Republican, a former member of the central committee, recently defended Arpaio as “doing his duty to interpose for the people of his country against an unconstitutional presidential order.” I guess he meant President Obama’s policy of not chasing undocumented immigrants who haven’t committed other crimes.

Give me a break. Arpaio didn’t get in trouble for upholding the law. He got in trouble for breaking the law, and then thumbing his nose at the courts.

Here’s the real point, though: We can do better than this.

I know for a fact that many of my Republican friends here are deeply embarrassed and unhappy, even if very few are speaking out publicly. Many are as mystified as I am that the gala organizers came up with a speaker who revolts them. (Sadly, though, tickets for the Arpaio Rogue’s Dinner sold out almost immediately.)

Douglas County Republican leaders aren’t just bringing shame on themselves. They’re bringing shame on my entire county, including all the genuinely decent Republicans who have no desire whatsoever to coddle a criminal.

I would hope that people of integrity, regardless of their political affiliation, would let others know that most of us are better than this. Speak out in whatever way seems best to you. Talk to your friends; call up party officials; write letters to the editor; join the protests that will surely take place.

It seems clear that the GOP organizers aren’t about to change their plans, and that’s their right. But to them, my message is simple: Shame on you.

Edmund Andrews is a former journalist and political activist who lives in Douglas County. Reach him at elandrews3@gmail.com

 

A journalist says she heard about Steve Wynn years ago, and the time has come for a reckoning on sexual misconduct

A fountain a the Wynn Resorts with the company name on the front

By Emmily Bristol

There is a reckoning happening and we are just at the beginning. The same stories that could not be told 15 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago, last year even, are being laid bare. Stories that in another time would have gone softly to the grave with the whisper wake of quietly shattered lives carefully cloaked from view are now posted in the town square of social media. And the really breathtaking part is – they are being believed.

Maybe for the first time in human history, we are seeing a sea of sexual violence survivors being believed. The world is watching. The language is changing. From Hollywood to the White House to the Olympics to Las Vegas Boulevard, we are being believed.

As a survivor of sexual assault myself, I admit that as hard as I have worked to be heard and as hard as I have worked to help others be heard, I did not know if this day would come in my lifetime. I’m 41. I’ve been waiting for 36 years to be believed and my rapist wasn’t rich or famous. I can only imagine what it’s been like to see the image of your perpetrator laughing in photos with celebrities in newspapers or being interviewed on TV. I can only imagine what it would be like to know deep in your soul that there would be no justice for you because your abuser was a billionaire who helped presidents get elected.

The worst part of all this for me personally is that I knew about Steve Wynn for a long time. I heard a story from one of his victims about 15 years ago. And I tried every year of those 15 years to get someone somewhere to publish a story about it. But the word of an anonymous victim wasn’t enough 15 years ago – or even last year.

This #MeToo moment is a true shock and awe moment. And as much as all of us are finding our footing in this new day, it’s important to recognize all the ways that this is changing things, including journalism, the criminal justice system, corporate America and potentially even our laws.

As I shared on my syndicated blog, The Sin City Siren, I tried to tell the story I knew about Steve Wynn for a long time. I was around 25 years old when I heard the first-person account of a woman who had worked at one of Steve Wynn’s casinos. She worked in the salon and was called up to his office one night, where (she alleged) he forced her to have sex. I had only been a professional journalist for about five years and had lived in Las Vegas for about three of those.

I know that 15 years ago doesn’t seem that long, but in a lot of ways it was a really different time. I moved to Las Vegas in 1999 and everyone was freaking out about the Y2K bug that was going to end the world at midnight on New Year’s Eve and shut down The Strip in mass pandemonium. It sounds ridiculous now, but that’s where things were.

So, to be an unknown reporter at the View newspapers and to stumble upon such a huge story, it was overwhelming for me personally and professionally. As I said, I am a rape survivor. So the story I heard about Steve Wynn and a woman who worked for him – it was hard to hear on a personal level. It made me sick.

The story was hard on a professional level for a variety of reasons as well. One is that I didn’t have a reputation in the community that I could use to help get a story like this published. Today anyone can have a blog or podcast, but in 2003 Facebook wasn’t even invented yet. Publishing a story like this by myself was not an option. Publishing the story in the newspaper that I worked for was also not an option because their mission was “chicken dinner news” as then-publisher Sherman Frederick used to say.

So I had editors in my own newsroom saying no. I sent it up the food chain, like I was told to do, and it went nowhere. Cut to 2004, and I was working at Las Vegas CityLife, an alternative weekly. I pitched the story again and the answer was no. After that, I discreetly told trustworthy reporters who were big names and had a lot of credibility. None of them were interested. I told editors at national publications. No. Always the answer was no. One woman’s story was not enough.

Why do I think the answer was always no? That’s complicated. I think everyone – even big time journalists – gets scared sometimes. The other part is that editors get worried about being sued. They get worried about advertising dollars. The deeper answer is that people didn’t believe. Everyone has internalized our society’s ideas about sexual misconduct. We’ve seen again and again how victims are treated. They inevitably get asked, “what were you wearing?” “were you drinking?” “were you asking for it?” That goes for newsrooms, too.

It wasn’t that long ago that Brock Turner’s dad was giving an emotional plea to go easy on the convicted rapist because his life shouldn’t be ruined for “three minutes of action.” Or in 2016 when the singer Kesha couldn’t get out of her contract with a producer she says assaulted her. She’s still technically under contract with him even though the public pushed the #FreeKesha hashtag with the implication that we believe her, that we are done asking if she deserved it.

Another hard truth is that the people who were more powerful than me were men. I’m not saying that any of those men specifically were sexist or uncaring, but I think it is a part of this. Diversity in newsrooms yields different stories and different answers. In my early career I worked in more newsrooms where I was the only woman than not. And at those newsrooms where I was the only woman, I was always given the “women’s stories” like rape stories, domestic violence stories and so on. I’m happy to see that things have been changing for the better. The most recent newsrooms in which I worked had not only greater diversity but better editorial conversations about why a story was worthy or not. That’s definitely part of what’s different now. It’s created an environment in which journalists and editors are more open to believing and more open to publishing. That’s a major shift and it’s the only way a decade’s long, grassroots movement like #MeToo gets on the cover of Time magazine or powerful men like Steve Wynn finally get exposed.

If it were not for the thousands of unnamed, unacknowledged activists behind the scenes for generations, we would not have this moment. If Baby Boomer feminists hadn’t raised my generation as feminists, we wouldn’t have “woke” millennials. Without the ubiquity of social media and its power to amplify the voices of those who would otherwise not be heard – black twitter, feminists, trans individuals, etc. – we would not have #MeToo, a movement started by a black woman named Tarana Burke over 10 years ago. I think every time someone has told their story, whether it’s an activist like me at the Legislature or a famous celebrity like Lady Gaga, it changed our society a tiny bit. Tiny bit here. Tiny bit there. Pretty soon things are changing. No one person did it alone. We all did it, together.

This work has been gut-wrenching. I liken the experience of telling my rape story to something similar to the LGBTQ movement and coming out back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Coming out used to be shocking.  Now it’s just a Tuesday. But the reason why it’s just a Tuesday is because of all the thousands and millions of non-famous regular people who risked everything to tell their truth. I see that in rape stories, too. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done to tell the world I was raped. I did not ever want to tell anyone I was raped. I still don’t think it’s anyone’s business. The reason why I told my story was because as a journalist, I saw exactly what happens in any story about rape – quote from a rape advocacy group, quote from a cop (or cop stats), quote from someone who doesn’t believe it. In a media system that only values the people who will give quotes, actual rape victims are silenced. We are reduced to statistics. We are reduced to the way other people want to describe us. I saw a problem and so I decided I had to be a part of the solution. I had to talk my walk.

Every time a survivor of sexual assault speaks their truth – as hard as it is to hear them – our society inches a little closer to better. When we believe them, it sends a huge message to anyone out there who is struggling in that situation. That’s powerful. My rapist told me I was nothing. He left me written instructions on ways to kill myself. I told two adults. They didn’t believe me. And so I believed everything my rapist told me about myself. So when real-life people in the trenches of trauma see someone being believed, it matters. It could be life or death for that person. Those are the stakes we are talking about here. If me telling my story means that someone somewhere can finally escape a living hell or even just hang on for one more day, then I will crawl on broken glass to tell my story. But it doesn’t work if I just shout my story into the void. It only works if people believe.

When we believe victims, it sends a message to the perpetrators, too. It’s going to take time for reforms to our criminal justice system and courts system to catch up to this social moment. But the fact that people are engaging with it, gives me hope that reforms will happen. Once victims can trust the criminal justice system or the boards of people in power (like the US Gymnastics board or the Gaming Control Board), that’s going to be a great day.

What people in power do with this moment is going to really matter. Our society’s feelings about sexual violence – from sexual harassment to rape – are deeply embedded in not just us as people, but in all our institutions. Human beings are creatures who have to see something to believe it. This is why all those unprocessed rape kits collecting dust on shelves matter. The evidence yielded from the kits that have been processed so far is pretty damning. We’re getting hard evidence that a person who rapes one time, often has multiple victims – that rape is often a serial crime. Sound familiar? Look at the Larry Nassar case where there are hundreds and hundreds of victims of just one man, much like the Jerry Sandusky case a few years ago. The other thing we now know more than ever is that those men had vast networks of conspirators who helped them get away with it. The US Gymnastics board is resigning at the end of this week because of their culpability in more than 160 women being sexually assaulted by Larry Nassar. How many people do you think are culpable in a situation like Steve Wynn’s? How many board members knew? Are there any Gaming Control board members who knew? I don’t know the answer, but I think those are important questions.

I think whatever the Gaming Control Board does, it will have ramifications. If they do nothing, it sends a message. If they do something, but it’s a slap on the wrist, it matters. If they do something huge, it matters. I think if people say that all of this is just the result of “an angry ex-wife” that matters, too.  Everything that happens next matters.

A lot can happen between ringing the bell and justice. Look what happened to Asia Argento, the Italian actress who went on record (along with actresses Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd) about Harvey Weinstein in October. Argento ended up fleeing Italy after the story broke because she received backlash from her country’s politicians and people in power to the point that she feared for her own safety. If Steve Wynn can pay his victims thousands or even millions of dollars, what kind of favors do you think he could ask of people in powerful places? I’m not saying that he is or would. But the hard truth that any survivor of sexual violence will tell you is that the road to justice can be perilous – even impossible.

What I hope happens next is that people from all walks of life in any industry know that their voice matters. I hope that newsrooms will have journalists who are not afraid and who are not bound by the sexist assumptions of the past. I hope that what comes out of this #MeToo moment is real conversations, hard conversations – that lead us to a better understanding of each other and of what it means to be a human being.

For years activists have been telling people to “start by believing.” Believing is #FreeKesha and #MeToo and #TimesUp. But believing is also just a start.

Disclosure: Wynn Resorts and the Elaine P. Wynn and Family Foundation have donated to The Nevada Independent. You can see a full list of donors here.

Emmily Bristol is an award-winning journalist whose blog is called The Sin City Siren

What the State of the Union teaches us about Nevada’s congressional candidates

I didn’t watch the State of the Union Address – I usually go out of my way to avoid it. I used to almost look forward to them, but the spectacle became so empty under President Obama that I gave up on them. I don’t mind a little pageantry, but I’m wholly uninterested in ego-feeding campaign speeches masquerading as a report to lawmakers on how the execution of their laws is coming along. I didn’t like it from the last president, and I didn’t expect anything more from the current one.

I do always read them, though, which is a better way to assess the substance of (what should be) both a report on past activity and a set of policy proposals. I’ve never been a Trump supporter or even a voter, but that speech was really good, both rhetorically and substantively. Americans who tuned in seem to have agreed. But the way I know for certain that it was effective?  

The responses of Nevada’s political candidates – especially the Democrats.

~~~

The press releases in response to the speech were really… well, sad. They were also aggressively dishonest. For example, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto spoke for her colleagues when she described the recent tax overhaul as, “a huge tax give away to corporate America and the top 1 percent on the backs of seniors, our kids and hardworking families.”  Except that a) letting people keep more of their own money is not a “giveaway,” and b) seniors, kids and hardworking families also saw tax relief. Whenever you hear someone toss out that “1 percent” bromide, which is an absolute paean to envy and covetousness, and then you hear them complain about “pitting people against one another,” you know you aren’t listening to a serious or credible person.

Senate candidate Jacky Rosen beat the immigration drum, saying, “I was disappointed that the president did not use this opportunity to talk about why it’s so important for Congress to act now to protect DREAMers.”  Except that the President proposed granting citizenship to 1.8 million of them. What else do you want?  He also talked about beefing up border security, which Americans have overwhelmingly supported in conjunction with a  DACA extension for years. We can – and should – do both, and holding up a proposal from President Trump of all people to naturalize the people you claim are among your top priority because you don’t want more border patrol agents is partisan lunacy at its most self-destructive.

Congressional candidate Steven Horsford literally recycled a tired old Tea Party joke about teleprompters, a tacit admission that the speech was good. He then (again, echoing his colleagues – it’s like they all get the same talking points memo or something before they put these press releases out) endorsed multiple policy proposals within the speech, including addressing the opioid addiction epidemic, infrastructure investment and immigration reform. But then he insultingly dismissed any realistic possibility of working with the president, saying he didn’t believe him. This, of course, tells us that sending Mr. Horsford to Washington will accomplish exactly nothing for Nevadans who want to overcome drug dependence or those who want jobs building roads.

The sad thing is that if a Democratic president had given the exact same speech, all three of these folks would have been cheering at every opportunity. Prominent Democrats sounded more Trumplike than Trump on immigration just a few years ago, including President Obama in his 2010 State of the Union address. (I have no objection to people or parties changing their minds on these issues, but at least be honest – and appropriately humble – about it.)  Talking about spending more on infrastructure is right in the wheelhouse of historically Democratic-leaning labor union members. And who doesn’t love vets, or hate North Korea?  

And even if you didn’t like the speech – or the man giving it – what profit is there in sitting like a sullen sourpuss when the President of the United States talks about supporting protesters in Iran?  Or escaping an evil dictatorship?  Or a growing economy?  Or record low unemployment among black Americans?  Or prosecuting gang members for murder?  Donald Trump has always been fortunate in the self-destructive foolishness of his adversaries, and this week has been no different.

~~~

Nevada Republicans taught us a few things, too. Rep. Mark Amodei remains my favorite guy in politics, blowing off attending the State of the Union so he can come home and get some real work done. Sen. Dean Heller looked silly trying too hard (and still failing) to get a photo-op handshake with the President post-speech. Heller’s primary opponent Danny Tarkanian looked even sillier by posting clips of it and attempting to imply in it some sort of implicit presidential endorsement of what will almost certainly be Tarkanian’s sixth failed political campaign.

~~~

My biggest objection to Donald Trump has always been his seeming lack of seriousness or discipline, and the fact that his… unsavory personality creates unnecessary obstacles to actually getting policies I would prefer passed into law. I still don’t believe he has any deeply held philosophy of how and why a government ought to work, he thinks petty insults equal leadership, and I think he confuses political “winning” with achieving lasting policy improvements. But that just as accurately describes his political opponents these days, and if I have to choose between two unserious “sides,” I’ll take the one presiding over a strengthening economy, and the folks who don’t sit and scowl when an American president is talking about how exceptional our nation is.

And whether or not I voted for Mr. Trump, I want his presidency to be a success for the country. Just as fervently, I want my congressional delegation in a position to both work with him on the many areas where Democrats and Republicans just aren’t all that far off, and to likewise be in a position to check executive overreach. Sadly, too many of our candidates in both parties continue to show us they cannot be trusted to keep both of those duties in the right balance.

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a deputy district attorney for Carson City. His opinions here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at orrin@orrinjohnson.com.

 

Wynn changed the Las Vegas image, and now his image has changed forever

A photo of Wynn Resorts in Las Vegas

Drive down the Strip and you can’t help wondering where Las Vegas would be without Steve Wynn.

The Mirage, Treasure Island, Bellagio, Wynn Las Vegas and Encore: They’re a cut above most of the competition. And the shimmering resorts tell only part of the bigger story of Wynn’s role as a gaming industry visionary.

His influence on casino development from the Las Vegas Boulevard to Macau is undeniable. Wynn’s image as “The Great Casino Salesman,” as Time magazine once breathlessly called him, has remained preeminent. Even when other companies generated higher profits, and his own reported corporate excesses caused him problems, he’s without doubt the casino industry’s biggest CEO celebrity.

That image changed forever last week when The Wall Street Journal published an article quoting sources who alleged Wynn had displayed a decades-long pattern of sexual harassment of his female employees. The descriptions of the boss pressuring the hired help into sexual favors were ugly. The WSJ’s report, swiftly followed by other press, included the allegation that in 2005 Wynn paid a $7.5 million settlement to a casino salon manicurist who alleged she’d been coerced into having sex with him. On Friday, Bloomberg News reported the settlement involved a paternity claim.

Wynn’s response: “The idea that I ever assaulted any woman is preposterous.”

Sounds like a man with nothing to hide. We’ll see.

The response to the news was swift and predictable. Wynn Resorts stock briefly plummeted before appearing to regain its footing. While a few gaming industry analysts appeared to express genuine surprise, others pleaded for patience. A couple analysts even scolded the messenger. A few, perhaps swayed by the company’s recent 8K filing, asked an intriguing question: Where would Wynn Resorts be without Steve Wynn?

Casino regulatory authorities including the Nevada Gaming Control Board, Massachusetts Gaming Commission and Macau’s Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau, acknowledged they’re now investigating. They also must officially be surprised and concerned.

And the Wynn Resorts board announced the creation of a special committee headed by its only female board member, Pat Mulroy, to investigate the accusations against Wynn. Will its members also express surprise at the nature of the allegations? That will be interesting to see.

The investigation shouldn’t take long. All the other sexual harassment allegations aside, it should be a simple matter to call for the unsealing of the $7.5 million settlement and conduct an on-the-record interview with Wynn to explain it.

After the story broke, Wynn gave up his position as national finance chairman of the Republican Party. Pussycat politicians left his lap long enough to announce they were returning his tainted contributions or giving them to charity.

Wynn has donated $2.4 million to the Republican Party—$5 million less than he gave to a manicurist. He gave plenty to the Democrats as well. But, as a general rule, when your money’s not good enough for politicians to touch, you’re having a bad week.

In another tarring of Wynn’s legacy, officials at the University of Pennsylvania decided to remove the “Wynn Commons” name and rescind his honorary degree for his suspected acts. Penn President Amy Gutmann and Board of Trustees Chair David Cohen wrote that the allegations were “inimical to the core values of our University.”

The university also announced it was stripping reputed serial rapist Bill Cosby’s honorary degree. Suffice to say that if your name’s mentioned in the same story with Cosby, you need some help in the image department. (Wynn’s name was also removed from an honored place at the University of Iowa’s Institute for Vision Research.)

In years past, Wynn might have taken his version of events to a wider audience via a TV interview king Charlie Rose, but his friend has been driven into the shadows by a sexual harassment scandal of his own. This time Wynn has mostly let his denial to the WSJ speak for itself. That includes his conclusion that “the instigation of these accusations is the continued work of my ex-wife Elaine Wynn, with whom I am involved in a terrible and nasty lawsuit in which she is seeking a revised divorce settlement.”

Although she’s locked in a fight over voting control of her 9 percent of the company, Elaine Wynn has denied a role in the story. But even if it were to be proven true, it doesn’t answer the repugnant allegations leveled at Steve Wynn.

Those questions deserve to be answered. Not because they’re shocking and surprising, but because they aren’t new.

I reported similar sexual harassment allegations in my 1995 book, “Running Scared: The Life and Treacherous Times of Las Vegas Casino King Steve Wynn.” It’s a story Wynn tried very hard to stop, then litigated, and then spent years attempting to discredit.

That was more than 22 years ago, and a lot has changed in that time—especially America, which is now focused on issues of sexual harassment. Las Vegas, I’m told, is changing, too.

Where would Las Vegas be without Steve Wynn?

It's hard to imagine, but we may soon find out.

Disclosure: Wynn Resorts has donated to The Nevada Independent. You can see a full list of donors here.

John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas journalist and author. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.

 

Politicians silent in the wake of Wynn allegations say a lot about themselves

A photo of Wynn Resorts in Las Vegas

At some point, no matter how they try to hide it, politicians reveal their characters.

It may come early in their careers, or not. It may come when you least expect it, or when you most expect it. But it will happen.

The Steve Wynn revelations are providing an illuminating spotlight for many Nevada elected officials and candidates, almost all of whom have long solicited his support and gushed about his accomplishments. Now that The Wall Street Journal has detailed a long list of sexual misconduct allegations surrounding Wynn, we decided to see how prominent pols would react, especially in the #MeToo era.

But we at The Indy were not simply curious about what they would do with the Wynn campaign contributions, but whether they would have the gumption to comment at all on the story and what they would commit to do to combat sexual harassment in the workplace.

We asked three specific questions:

---Are you concerned about the behavior detailed in the allegations against Steve Wynn?

---What more could or should be done to combat sexual harassment in the gaming industry and/or workplace harassment generally?

---You have taken campaign contributions in the past from either Steve Wynn, his wife, Wynn Resorts or its subsidiaries. Do you plan to donate those contributions or otherwise return the money? If you plan to donate the contributions, where will the money go to? If not, why not?

The results have been so revealing.

Gov. Brian Sandoval, as usual, was the adult in the room, saying he was “disturbed, saddened and deeply troubled” by the story. The governor also declined to give back or donate to charity the tens of thousands of dollars Wynn and his companies have given to him and his PAC, saying he is not running again, the money has been spent and he has never been influenced by campaign contributions.

Fine. Fair enough.

I have always found the knee jerkery around campaign contributions once a donor gets into trouble to be more a sop to the media than any tribute to sincerity. It’s essentially a meaningless statement.

But condemning the behavior, expressing some sort of outrage, even if the conclusion is a “let’s see what happens before I go any further” would seem to be mandatory, especially from people asking for your vote for high office. Or, you know, from people who are human.

And yet, just glance at our chart with all of those blanks. They are there many days after my reporters first asked the questions.

Two of the largest recipients of Wynn’s support, rhetorical and financial, have returned his contributions from this cycle. Yes, Sen. Dean Heller and Attorney General Adam Laxalt have relieved themselves of money that somehow now is tainted.

But how do they feel about the Journal story, what is their commitment to combat sexual harassment? Crickets.

Heller’s primary foe, Danny Tarkanian, also has not responded. But Laxalt’s primary opponent, Treasurer Dan Schwartz, said, “The allegations against Mr. Wynn are serious and real. And, I believe once the Wynn Board begins its investigation, more bad news for Mr. Wynn will come out.”

And Schwartz added, “That really involves a larger question: Why does the state genuflect to the gaming industry at the expense of Nevada’s future? We know the answer—political contributions. Carson City needs to solve that before it can begin to deal with ‘workplace harassment generally’ on the Strip.”

Sure, you can call him a loose cannon. Yes, his hyperbolic rhetoric is a bit much. And you can say it’s easy for him to spout off because he would never get Establishment money anyhow.

But there is a kernel of truth in what he says, and it’s better than saying….nothing.

This is one of the biggest scandals in the history of Nevada, involving an iconic figure whose influence on the state is vast. And they can’t say….anything?

The two Democrats running for governor were very strong in their reaction, including State Sisolak, who gave away $15,000 he recently received. "Steve Wynn’s alleged behavior is disgusting and unacceptable,” he said. “I stand with the brave women who came forward with their stories. There should be zero tolerance for harassment in the workplace."

And his Clark County Commission colleague, Chris Giunchigliani, also did not hold back: “The recent charges against Steve Wynn are part of a near-daily drumbeat of new cases of intimidation, bullying, sexual harassment and abuse from around the country as women increasingly feel comfortable bringing their experiences to light. To me, it underscores how important it is that every workplace in Nevada be free of sexual harassment."

Sure, they are Democrats who know Wynn really wants Laxalt to win. But basic human decency suggests if you are running for the state’s highest office that you say something, anything.

Silence here is not golden; it’s unconscionable.

This is a bipartisan affliction, too. The fear of Wynn is palpable in the non-answers from Democrats, too. Like their counterparts for constitutional offices, some Democrats running for high positions in state government couldn’t muster the courage to speak out.

The ever-outspoken Dina Titus dodged the questions about Wynn and her donations from him, only making a general; statement: “Unfortunately, Las Vegas has long been a difficult place for women. Cocktail waitresses, card dealers, housekeepers, and even gaming executives face abuse every day. We must fight to change the culture, not just here but everywhere, regardless of who the abuser is.”

That’s more than a lot of elected officials were willing to say. But not as much as her colleague and Heller foe Jacky Rosen, who said, “The allegations against Steve Wynn are deeply disturbing. I believe the women who endured this misconduct and bravely came forward to tell their ​stories. No matter how powerful you are, there should be zero tolerance for sexual harassment."

Deeply disturbing. Is that so hard to say, folks?

Apparently so.

 

Disclosure:  Several people mentioned here, including Steve Wynn, have donated to The Nevada Independent. You can view a full list of donors here.

Jon Ralston is the editor of The Nevada Independent. He has been covering Nevada politics for more than 30 years. Contact him at ralston@thenvindy.com. On Twitter: @ralstonreports

 

Wynn allegations are the tip of the iceberg

By Ann C. McGinley

Recent reports in The Wall Street Journal that Steve Wynn sexually abused female casino employees are rocking Las Vegas. Wynn’s loutish behavior, if true, is abhorrent. But Steve Wynn may only be the tip of the iceberg. Most sexual harassment is not the result of individual bad actors. It is systemic – not only “top dogs” but also supervisors, co-workers and customers harass vulnerable employees. And employers tolerate the harassment.

Conditions are ripe in Las Vegas for sexual misconduct against employees. On casino floors, young women serve drinks in skimpy outfits, and patrons, lured to Las Vegas by a motto that implies they can do whatever they want here, often drink to excess.

A highly sexualized environment that emphasizes an exaggerated, stereotyped heterosexuality prevails. Women are objectified, but men are not. Where female cocktail servers work in costumes that barely cover their private parts, their male counterparts (if there are any) wear loose-fitting pajama-like outfits. At the pools, female servers prance in skimpy bikinis while men wear t-shirts and shorts. Patrons solicit female employees to join them for sex in cabanas. Behind the scenes, housekeepers, many of whom do not speak English, are vulnerable to assault when they work alone in private rooms.

In my research of Las Vegas casinos over the past 12 years, I have encountered stories of harassment, assault and forced prostitution. Women who work on the casino floor tell tales of unwelcome comments, touching and grabbing, hostility, propositions for sex and racist and sexist slurs. Even when women report this behavior to their floor supervisors, they say they are ignored. Or worse, female dealers, rather than guilty customers, are removed from high roller tables, depriving them of coveted tips. Women who are barely past the age of 21 work in clubs in casinos and some have sued, alleging that their bosses get them hooked on cocaine and urge them to have sex with patrons. 

Most casinos have sexual harassment policies, training and reporting requirements, but many employees interviewed are unaware of the details. In fact, many policies don’t even cover harassment by customers; at least employees don’t know it if they do. No matter. Recent studies demonstrate that policies and training are useless – they do not prevent harassment.

Although much of this behavior is illegal, federal and state laws banning sexual harassment often don’t work. Victims have a very short time to file a charge or forgo a lawsuit. And, unlike other victims of discrimination, most harassment victims must report the harassment to the casino before they sue. If the victim fails to do so, even if she fears retaliation, her lawsuit will likely be dismissed.

To be sure, Las Vegas is a city where sex sells. But a sexualized environment is not inconsistent with fostering a culture of respect for women. Las Vegas doesn’t need to take a Puritan turn to protect its female employees. When creating a sexualized atmosphere, casinos have a special responsibility to protect their employees. One way to build a positive space is to have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to customer harassment, and to respond promptly when employees complain about customers. Cameras in the casinos already capture patrons’ card counting; why turn a blind eye when it comes to sexual abuse?

Nevada casinos must tread the fine line between a little bit naughty and downright raunchy. Fancy chandeliers don’t eliminate the raunch. Good policies that are vigorously applied do. These employees are our mothers, our wives, our sisters and our daughters. They should not have to pay a price to work. One way to assure that a casino does not encourage harassment of women is to treat male and female employees equally. Put male employees in similarly revealing outfits. Many heterosexual female and gay male customers will respond positively. And, if the men’s skimpy costumes make casino moguls or customers uncomfortable, it’s a sign that the women’s outfits are also too revealing.

A solution to co-worker and supervisor harassment of workers is to create greater equality between male and female employees. Research demonstrates that sexual harassment is often linked to sex segregation and discrimination; it mostly stems from disrespect and degradation rather than sexual desire. Casinos must create more inclusive workplaces that integrate all jobs from the housekeeping staff to the board of directors. The goal would be 50 percent men and 50 percent women in every job in the front and back of the house. Such steps are necessary not only to protect employees from harm but also to promote the economic wellbeing of the casino industry. Unions, too, can and do play an important role in negotiating better working conditions for women and men in casinos.

Nevada law gives the Gaming Control Board and the Gaming Commission broad discretion to investigate and discipline gaming license holders whose conduct is not suitable. The public policy of Nevada requires that casinos operate to promote the wellbeing of the state’s citizens. The Gaming Control Board should be applauded for investigating the Steve Wynn allegations to determine whether he should be disciplined, but the Board should not stop with Steve Wynn.

It should use its authority to assure that all license holders operate free of illegal harassment and assault. Only if it exercises its broad discretion to investigate the entire industry and to discipline where necessary will the Board protect the reputation of Nevada’s most important industry, foster its economic success and further the wellbeing of our citizens. One possible regulation would be to require gaming license holders to include in their training and policies a statement that encourages employees to complain to the Gaming Control Board if they suffer harassment or abuse.

What may appear to be a few bad apples might actually be a blight on the orchard. We cannot flinch or look away. Let’s not pretend that Steve Wynn stands alone. If we do, female employees of Nevada’s main industry and gaming itself will suffer, and we Nevadans will all be complicit.

Disclosure: Wynn is a donor to The Nevada Independent. See our full list of donors hereThe board of The Nevada Independent had a meeting on 1/29/18 to discuss whether to return the $75,000 2017 donation from Wynn Resorts. The vote was unanimous in favor of keeping the contribution. Editor Jon Ralston explained the decision here.

 McGinley is a William S. Boyd Professor of Law at UNLV Boyd School of Law and author of Masculinity at Work: Employment Discrimination through a Different Lens (NYU Press 2016) and many articles on gender discrimination in Nevada’s gaming industry.