Lawyers argue before Nevada Supreme Court over close Clark County Commission race

The front of the Nevada Supreme Court Building

The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday morning in a months-long case over an exceptionally close Clark County Commission race, with lawyers arguing whether discrepancies in the voting process met the definition of an election being “prevented.”  

Las Vegas Councilman Stavros Anthony, a Republican, filed for a recount on Dec. 4, three days after the Clark County Commission certified the results of the District C election in spite of 139 ballot discrepancies in the district. Those discrepancies had caused the board to consider a special election, but then it reversed course. 

The recount resulted in 74 new ballots included in the count, which found that former Secretary of State Ross Miller, a Democrat, won by 15 votes, more than the 10-vote margin from the original results. Miller was ultimately sworn in as commissioner.

In Wednesday’s appeal hearing, Anthony’s attorney, Michael Wall, hewed to the same argument he made at a November lower court hearing, when his request to stop results certification was denied. Mark Hutchison, another Anthony lawyer, said that comments made by Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria showed that an effective election had been “prevented” in the district because of ballot discrepancies.

“As a result [of the discrepancies], I cannot certify that the vote is an accurate representation of the will of the voters in that district,” Gloria said in the affidavit. “In my professional opinion as an election official, it raises a reasonable doubt as to the outcome of the election.”

Hutchison said that these discrepancies entitle Anthony and District C voters to a new election according to NRS 293.465, which says that a new contest is appropriate if “an election is prevented in any precinct or district by reason of the loss or destruction of the ballots intended for that precinct, or any other cause.” 

Chief Justice James Hardesty, however, pointed to the district court’s decision to stick with Gloria’s affidavit, which did not indicate that the election was prevented. 

“What the registrar said, to the logic to the Commission, was he could not certify the election,”  Wall said. “Nothing in the statute says that the registrar has to use the words ‘the election was prevented.’ The registrar used words which indicate, in his opinion, that there is no winner, there is no election that can be certified.”

Ballot discrepancies can occur when voters cast multiple ballots, when check-in numbers at voting sites don’t match up with the number of ballots cast at that site or as a result of various mail-in ballot issues. Gloria previously said that these discrepancies occur in every election.

Bradley Schrager, representing Miller, argued that neither Gloria nor the District Court, in its findings and conclusions, saw this as a “293.465 election.” 

“There was no election prevented here. What there was was statistical anomalies,” he said. “Mr. Anthony has not placed any ballots in question. There is no allegation that any ballot was counted that shouldn't have been. There's no allegation that any ballot wasn't counted that ought to have been. Neither is there any indication of any incident that can be directly linked to harm or prejudice to Mr. Anthony.”

However, Schrager suggested another statute — NRS 293.410 — would fit the case better as it includes instances in which the election board “made errors sufficient to change the results of the election, as to any person who has been declared elect.” 

“That's the terrain that Mr. Anthony ought to have been fighting,” Schrager said. “293.465 is a voter access statute; it is not a candidate protection statute.” 

The Supreme Court did not immediately issue a ruling after arguments.

Judge rejects Republican Dan Rodimer’s request for re-vote in congressional race

Dan Rodimer

A judge swiftly denied Republican congressional candidate Dan Rodimer’s request for a new election in the district he lost by about 13,000 votes, saying the court didn’t have jurisdiction over the case under Nevada law.

Judge Trevor Atkin dismissed Rodimer’s case during a 30-minute hearing in Clark County District Court on Wednesday. Atkin sided with attorneys for Clark County and the Nevada State Democratic Party, which argued the issue should be raised in a different format — an election contest proceeding.

“When we decide things, our North Star is the law,” Atkin said. “Despite the concerns as raised in the 87 paragraphs of the petition for writ of mandamus, this court simply has no jurisdiction.”

The case is the fifth brought by Republicans to either be denied by a judge or set for a voluntary withdrawal, mostly on the basis that they should be filed as election contests. A sixth case, brought by President Donald Trump’s campaign and seeking to award Trump Nevada’s six electoral votes on the basis of alleged irregularities, is set for a hearing Dec. 3 in Carson City.

The dismissal came after Rodimer’s attorney, Craig Mueller, alleged at the hearing that 4,600 voters in the 3rd Congressional District cast ballots in two different states; that there were 3,192 instances of double-balloting; that 7,646 ballots were voted that had been returned as undeliverable to the addressee in the primary election; and that there were 951 deceased voters and 56,000 ballots from “elderly” voters who hadn’t cast ballots in the last four elections.

Mueller did not explain his methodology during the hearing and a request to the court and lawyers involved in the case for supporting documents that may have been filed was not immediately answered. Mueller described his statistics as “preliminary numbers” from a “casual audit” of the congressional district and said “the actual numbers that we've actually been able to document is that there were 13,372 irregularities.”

Mueller has been a strident critic of Clark County and Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria, saying on the Kevin Wall talk radio show on Tuesday that Gloria is “rogue” and that Gloria and the county commissioners who certified the election results should be removed from office. He also said the approval of the results last week was “something worthy of the Politburo, something you would see in a Marxist government.”

County attorney Mary-Anne Miller, however, argued that Mueller simply has policy disagreements with AB4, a new law passed this year that changes election procedures, including broadening the use of mail balloting during times of emergency.

"Mr. Mueller doesn't like AB4. He's got the wrong respondents here,” she said, adding that Mueller “has not established that [the registrar or county commission] failed to act by statute." 

But the case ultimately never made it to a discussion of alleged irregularities. Atkin agreed with attorney Bradley Schrager, who represents the Nevada State Democratic Party and said the matter should be disqualified on procedural grounds alone.

"This is an election contest, styled improperly, brought in the wrong  place, to a court that has no jurisdiction, under a statute that cannot apply,” Schrager said.

Education funding lawsuit headed for Nevada Supreme Court after initial dismissal

Attorney Bradley Schrager speaks with media

In early March, education advocates stood outside the Regional Justice Center in downtown Las Vegas and announced a court battle to once and for all improve Nevada’s K-12 education funding. The 37-page lawsuit was years, if not decades, in the making.

A day later, health officials confirmed the state’s first case of coronavirus, beginning a cascade of events that led to the monthslong closing of schools, casinos, restaurants and other businesses. COVID-19 had sidelined conversations about school funding.

Then, in early October, Carson City District Court Judge James Wilson quietly dismissed the lawsuit after determining that “the Court will not substitute its judgment for that of the legislature with respect to the education policy in the state of Nevada.”

But Educate Nevada Now, an advocacy organization backing the lawsuit, and the plaintiffs plan to appeal the case to the Nevada Supreme Court.

“This result was not unexpected,” said Bradley Schrager, an attorney representing the plaintiffs. “It certainly makes sense at the outset of what will be a lengthy litigation for courts to get clear their jurisdictional abilities.”

Nine parents signed onto the lawsuit as plaintiffs when it was filed in March. The lawsuit, which had long been discussed in education circles, argues that the state isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to provide sufficient education resources, inhibiting student learning in the process. It names the state of Nevada, the Nevada Department of Education, State Superintendent Jhone Ebert and the Nevada State Board of Education as defendants. 

Essentially, the litigation — like similar suits in other states — aimed to dramatically boost K-12 spending in Nevada. It was never seen as an overnight fix, though, given a likely protracted court process.

Wilson granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit on Oct. 7.

“The complexities associated with promulgating, implementing, and enforcing a statewide system of education policy makes them better suited for determination by the legislature, not the courts which lack judicially discoverable and manageable standards to effectively resolve those issues,” Wilson noted in his dismissal.

Schrager expressed optimism regarding the case’s future, especially given the pandemic’s effects on education. 

“Education in this state hasn’t gotten any better in the last six months,” he said. “We’re in tremendous crisis.”

The coronavirus-related shutdowns stymied tax revenue statewide, leading to a special legislative session in July. Ultimately, lawmakers passed a major budget bill that included deep cuts to education despite efforts to minimize the harm. 

With the pandemic showing no signs of letting up and a vaccine still in development, state lawmakers are expected to be in another budget-cutting situation when the 2021 Legislature convenes in February.

Democrats ask court to block ‘fatally flawed’ Trump lawsuit against Nevada’s expanded mail voting for 2020 election

National and Nevada Democrats are asking a federal court to dismiss the Trump campaign’s lawsuit against the state’s plans for expanded mail-voting in the 2020 general election, claiming the “fatally flawed” legal challenge overstates the threat of voter fraud.

The motion to dismiss was filed in federal court on Thursday by a trio of Democratic Party organizations — the Nevada Democratic Party, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — in response to the lawsuit filed in early August by the Trump campaign and other Republican organizations challenging Nevada’s planned expansion of mail voting.

The Democratic groups, which motioned to intervene in the case in early August, say the Trump campaign is “inexplicably and without merit” attempting to reverse actions taken by the Legislature earlier this year to “safeguard the franchise in November and during future crises.” 

“They lack standing to bring their claims, having alleged no actual injury at the hands of Nevada’s election officials that would be redressed by the relief they seek, and having failed to articulate how a law that makes it easier for eligible Nevadans to vote causes harm to them or their supporters,” attorney Bradley Schrager wrote in the motion to dismiss.

The lawsuit came after state lawmakers in a late summer special session approved a bill, AB4, that requires election officials to mail ballots to all registered voters for the 2020 general election, while also requiring a minimum number of in-person polling places in the state’s most populous counties.

The bill passed along party lines, and also implemented changes to signature verification processes while explicitly allowing for ballot collection, a previously prohibited practice of allowing voters to give their ballots to another person to turn in (referred to pejoratively by Republicans as “ballot harvesting”).

Trump, who sharply criticized the bill in press conferences and on Twitter, threatened and later made good on the threat of filing a lawsuit challenging the state’s new election law last month. Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske’s office, the named defendant in the lawsuit, is also asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit.

The lawsuit asks a federal court to enjoin and block enforcement of the new election law, saying it “upends Nevada’s election laws and requires massive changes in election procedures and processes, makes voter fraud and other ineligible voting inevitable.” 

In their motion to dismiss, the Democratic groups claim that many of the injuries or deficiencies alleged in the Trump campaign’s lawsuit lack the proper standing that would allow a court to block some or all of the changes in AB4.

One section of the lawsuit challenges a provision allowing ballots received by election officials within three days of an election but without a clear postmark to be counted as valid, but the motion to dismiss states that the charge lacks standing as the alleged injury — the potential of “nefarious fraudsters” to have their ballots counted after Election Day — is “unduly speculative and generalized.”

They also reject another charge — the requirement of minimum in-person polling places in Washoe and Clark counties as unfair to rural counties that may have a higher voter-per-polling place standard — as also lacking standing, and say that the proposed remedy of blocking the bill entirely would “inflict greater harm on all voters by removing any threshold requirement for in-person voting opportunities.”

“Even if Plaintiffs had alleged that the Nevada Legislature must require all counties to provide multiple polling locations in order to avoid burdening their residents’ right to vote, Plaintiffs have not asked this Court to provide that relief,” the motion states. “Instead, they seek only to strip away minimum protections from more populous counties.”

The Democratic Party groups also rejected claims that the now-allowed ballot collection practices will lead to increased levels of fraud, calling it a “conclusory allegation of fraud unsupported by even a modicum of persuasive explanation.” They write that the allegation of voter fraud (a “wholly speculative and hypothetical injury”) is an “impermissibly generalized grievance” that is too broad to bring as an actionable challenge to the law.

“There is simply no authority for transmogrifying the vote dilution line of cases into a weapon that voters may use to enlist the federal judiciary to make it more difficult for millions of their fellow citizens to vote, based entirely on unfounded and speculative fears of voter fraud,” the motion states.

The motion also questioned the Trump campaign’s timing and urgency in their request to stop the changes to the 2020 election, noting that they filed an amended complaint (without any changes to the challenges) in late August and have not requested an expedited schedule, even as some local election officials prepare to send out ballots later this month.

“Despite seeking dramatic changes in how Nevada will administer the November Election, as of the date of this filing, Plaintiffs have taken no steps to expedite consideration or resolution of their claims,” the motion states.

Attorneys for the Trump campaign are required to respond to the secretary of state’s office’s motion to dismiss by Monday, Sept. 9, and respond to the Democratic group’s motion by Sept. 17.

Action on the lawsuit is threatening to run up against state-imposed deadlines for the mailing of general election ballots. According to the secretary of state’s office, overseas and military voters will receive ballots by Sept. 19, and a handful of rural counties plan to mail out ballots by Sept. 24 at the earliest.

The deadline for ballots to be mailed out to voters is Oct. 14.

Dems response to Trump election lawsuit by Riley Snyder on Scribd

Dems response to Trump election lawsuit by Riley Snyder on Scribd

Republican challenger in District 3, Dan Rodimer, missed deadline for updated 2020 financial disclosure

Voter registration forms

More than a month after the campaign for Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District has pivoted toward a general election contest between incumbent Democrat Susie Lee and Republican challenger Dan Rodimer, records show more than eight weeks have passed since Rodimer was required to file a personal financial disclosure form.

Those same records also show that no attempt has been made to request a filing extension, as Rodimer did when he filed an initial financial disclosure in late 2019. 

Republican candidate for Congressional District 3 Dan Rodimer. (Courtesy/Rodimer for Congress)

Candidates for the U.S. House who have raised or spent more than $5,000 are required by law to file financial disclosures with the clerk every calendar year, with deadlines being set generally as May 15. 

So long as candidates remain qualified candidates by then, they are required to file an additional disclosure as of that date, and are only freed of the obligation if they lose a primary or withdraw their candidacy, according to Bradley Schrager, a lawyer at the firm Wolf, Rifkin, Shapiro, Schulman and Rabkin who specializes in campaign finance compliance. 

Schrager explained that there are ways to request an extension for such filings, and that a failure to file does not necessarily imply a violation of filing laws. But records show no such request on file, and the Rodimer campaign did not initially respond to eight requests for comment, including messages left over email, phone and text.

The Nevada Independent did eventually reach a campaign spokesperson and supplied questions in writing, but the campaign did not return a response. 

The penalty most often handed down for late reports is a $200 fine, though harsher punishments — up to $60,517 in fines in a civil case as well as up to one year in prison in a criminal case — can be reserved for willfully falsifying a statement or failing to file one at all.

The pro-Trump Rodimer, a one-time professional wrestler, garnered support from the Republican establishment, including an endorsement from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in March. 

He has since staked much of his campaign on more than a decade in business, where he has participated in or managed operations in real estate, restaurants and more. 

That business record includes a more recent history as president of two companies, Gemini Holdings LLC and Big Pain LLC, both of which provided him earned income through 2018 and 2019 through “consulting fees.” That includes a reported $297,000 from Gemini and an additional $40,125 from Big Pain — a company that was dissolved in 2018 and did not conduct business activities since 2015, according to a dissolution filing with the Nevada Secretary of State. 

House ethics rules dictate that, should candidates or members receive income through a business that serves clients, they “must identify each of those clients.”

Rodimer has become the latest Republican hopeful looking to flip the swingy District 3, emerging from a frequently combative and attack-filled primary race with more than 49.8 percent of the vote. 

The ex-wrestler entered the race as a relative unknown. His only political experience came as a state Senate candidate in 2018, where he narrowly lost his primary bid by just 2 percentage points, and he must now contend against a well-funded incumbent in Lee. 

Lee has raised more than $2.7 million over the course of the 2020 campaign cycle, and ended the last filing period with at least $2 million in cash on hand. Lee may also stand to benefit from a possible presidential coattail effect, should Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden carry the state in November. 

As a sitting member of Congress, Lee is required to file much more frequent disclosures than if she were only a candidate. Through 2020, records show she has filed five such disclosures, with the most recent filings appearing on June 15.

Still, the race is expected to remain competitive. Democrats hold a narrow voter registration advantage of roughly 3 points, and the district was narrowly won by President Donald Trump in the 2016 race, even as the House seat fell to freshman Democrat Jacky Rosen. 

Both candidates will likely remain dogged by accusations and attacks from third party groups, though for vastly different reasons; Rodimer has sought to distance himself from a 2011 arrest following an assault at a Florida Waffle House in 2010, saying in 2018 that he “pushed a bully.” Charges against Rodimer were ultimately dropped after he completed an anger management course, and the incident did not create a criminal record. 

Lee, meanwhile, has for weeks defended her role in a change to federal policy that opened the door for small casinos to federal coronavirus relief funds. Those casinos include her husband's company, Full House Resorts, which received more than $5 million through the government’s Paycheck Protection Program. 

In an interview with The Nevada Independent Thursday, Lee said that she was “doing my job” in requesting the change, and charged that she would be facing criticism today had she not acted as she did. 

The Cook Political Report, which analyzes and rates individual House races, assessed the seat as “Lean Democratic” despite a voting history that shows a slight edge toward Republicans.

Update, 7/11/20 at 2:35 p.m. - This story was updated to include additional details on the legal punishments reserved for late filings or an outright failure to file.

Nevada Democrats threaten legal action without major changes, expansion of all-mail primary election

Attorneys representing the Nevada State Democratic Party are firing a warning shot and threatening potential litigation without requested changes to the state’s plan to hold an all-mail primary election in June amid ongoing COVID-19 concerns.

Attorneys Bradley Schrager and Marc Elias — a nationally prominent attorney for Democrats, including former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign — said in an email to the office of Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske last Friday that the party was concerned about details of the planned all-mail election and that it could violate constitutional protections and normal election procedure.

The letter outlines a number of concerns about the announced election process, including concerns that limiting in-person voting to one site per county would pose “certain risks and hardships” to voters not typically accustomed to voting by mail. It could lead to unwanted outcomes such as requiring voters in urban areas to risk going to “dangerously overcrowded polling places” or for rural voters to travel “unreasonable distances” to cast a ballot.

“Voting by mail is a sound system only when paired with meaningful opportunities to vote safely in person,” the attorneys wrote in the letter. “This is particularly important considering the circumstances surrounding the current pandemic, which has already displaced many voters from the mailing addresses at which they are registered, meaning that they are unlikely to receive their ballots even when mailed to the correct addresses.”

But the office appears unlikely to acquiesce to the demands. Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske said in an emailed statement that the office disagreed with many of the suggestions, saying that opening more polling places "creates logistical and staffing challenges, as well as increased risk of the spread of the coronavirus."

“We are a nation of laws," she wrote in an email. "My job, as defined in (state law), is to faithfully execute and enforce state election laws as written."

State and local election officials in Clark County said last week that “extremely limited” early voting opportunities would be available to voters throughout the state, with several sites likely to be placed throughout Clark County.

The attorneys also requested that the secretary of state’s office mail ballots to all registered voters, not just those listed as “active,” and suspend prosecutions of a state law prohibiting non-family members from returning or collecting absentee ballots from voters.

Nevada law typically only allows an individual voter or a family member to return an absentee ballot, making it a felony offense to turn in such a ballot. Nevada is one of 12 states that limit who may collect an absentee ballot. 

Cegavske said that sending ballots to inactive voters would "increase printing and mailing costs and result in a significant amount of undeliverable ballots." He also wrote that state law specifically prohibited "ballot-harvesting" practices.

Additional requests include suspending ballot rejections for signature mismatches on absentee ballots, with the attorneys saying that “lay election officials” do not have the expertise to conduct signature verification, and that signature matching is “not needed to ensure the integrity of the election.”

“In an environment where the vast majority of Nevada voters will be casting a mail-in ballot for the first time, there is the real possibility that hundreds of thousands of Nevada voters could be disenfranchised due to the arbitrary determinations of these untrained officials,” they wrote in the letter.

They also asked that the office update state administrative code that currently conflicts with a 2019 state law now allowing ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted. The letter was first reported by Fox News and the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

200410 Letter to Hon. Barbara Cegavske by Riley Snyder on Scribd

200410 Letter to Hon. Barba... by Riley Snyder on Scribd

Updated at 7:08 p.m. to include a quote from the secretary of state's office.

Long-awaited school funding lawsuit against Nevada follows similar action in other states

Attorney Bradley Schrager speaks with media

The education advocates behind a lawsuit filed Wednesday that challenges Nevada’s school finance system say it was years in the making — and could take years to resolve.

The acknowledgement underscores what for many in the education realm is a frustrating reality: When it comes to large structural or financial changes, progress moves at glacial speeds, especially in a state where legislators only meet every two years.

But litigation doesn’t promise a swift fix either.

“Anyone who has lived in Nevada or has followed education policy in Nevada for any length of time knows that this lawsuit has been a long time coming,” said Bradley Schrager, an attorney with a law firm working on the case. But he later added a caveat: “These cases take time. Many of them take years to resolve because they’re complex.”

Even so, two of the nine parents who have signed onto the lawsuit as plaintiffs painted a dire portrait of the state’s public schools. 

Caryne Shea, co-founder of the advocacy group HOPE For Nevada, said her fifth-grade daughter sits in a single--wide portable classroom with 36 students. Her two children, who have been identified as advanced learners, also don’t receive much, if any, gifted and talented education (GATE) services because of low funding.

A fellow plaintiff, Christina Backus, said she moved her third-grade son who has autism to a different school because his prior one had class sizes that were too large, hampering his ability to thrive in a general-education setting. She worries about what will happen when he reaches middle and high school years.

“We’ve tried everything, but the state has given parents like me no other option,” Shea said during a news conference Wednesday afternoon. “It is time for Nevada to do what is right for our students.”

A national trend

The 37-page lawsuit — filed Wednesday in the First Judicial District Court in Carson City — argues the state isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to provide sufficient education resources, inhibiting student learning in the process. It’s not entirely unprecedented. Nevada is one of three states that up until now hadn’t been embroiled in a school finance-related lawsuit.

David Sciarra, executive director of the New Jersey-based Education Law Center, said multiple factors influence the outcome of school funding lawsuits. Still, he characterized them as an effective tool.

“Lawsuits in many states have served as the catalyst to move recalcitrant legislators and governors to do what’s right for their school children by increasing the level of investment (in) public education,” he wrote in an email. “A recent example is Massachusetts where a lawsuit filed last June broke a legislative logjam on school funding reform that will yield over $1.5 billion in new dollars, mostly directed to the state’s poorest districts.”       

Not all funding lawsuits led to rapid funding reversals like in Massachusetts.

In 2007, two families and a broad-based coalition filed a lawsuit — which became known as the McCleary case — against the State of Washington, alleging the state wasn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to “amply fund” public education. The Washington state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in June 2011. Seven months later, in January 2012, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision, ordering Washington to fully fund its K-12 public schools. 

The court then retained jurisdiction over the case for the following six years, and two years into that stint it found the Legislature in contempt for not establishing a plan to fully fund schools. That led to a $100,000 a day fine for a period.

Ultimately, education funding in Washington state increased by billions of dollars, said Linda Mullen, a spokesperson for the Washington Education Association, which supported the litigation.

If Nevada residents can learn anything from Washington’s experience with this type of litigation, Mullen said it’s to stay the course. The “long-term strategy” demands a unified front, she said, with parents, teachers and community members working together.

“It is definitely worth it,” she said. “It will take time and you will have to keep at it.”

A long-awaited move

Soon after a parent group filed the lawsuit Wednesday in Nevada, support cropped up from a variety of stakeholders — other parents, teachers’ unions and Nevada State Board of Education members.

The Nevada State Education Association released a statement applauding Educate Nevada Now, an advocacy organization backing the lawsuit, and the parent plaintiffs. The statewide teachers’ union also announced it plans to submit an amicus brief in support of the lawsuit.

“NSEA has consistently called out the chronic underfunding of Nevada schools and has worked to address this issue,” NSEA President Brian Rippet said in a statement. “We agree that the state has fallen egregiously short of the sufficiency required by the Nevada Constitution.”

Earlier this year, the Clark County Education Association filed two initiative petitions that seek to bolster K-12 education funding by increasing the gaming tax and sales tax. The union’s executive director, John Vellardita, said the lawsuit doesn’t harm that initiative — it simply sheds more light on the funding woes.

“I just think this puts more pressure on those that have been placed in office to address this issue in the 2021 (legislative) session,” he said.

The governor’s office did not return a request for comment on Wednesday. State Superintendent Jhone Ebert, one of the defendants named in the lawsuit, said through a spokesperson that she’s aware of the litigation but, as of Wednesday evening, had not been served official documents to review.

Two state board members — Felicia Ortiz and Kevin Melcher — also spoke positively about the lawsuit despite the board being named a defendant. They questioned why the board was sued given its inability to control state revenue. Schrager, the attorney working on the case, said the lawsuit doesn’t name the Legislature as a defendant because courts don’t allow litigation that would demand lawmakers to vote a certain way.

Ortiz said she has had state lawmakers tell her education funding probably wouldn’t dramatically change unless Nevada faced a lawsuit. So while litigation represents a likely lengthy process, Ortiz said it’s better than another state-commissioned study.

“That hasn’t gotten us anywhere,” she said, “so I’m hopeful this might.”

Melcher said he doesn’t fault Educate Nevada Now or the parent plaintiffs for filing a lawsuit. He supports increasing K-12 education funding across the state.

“There’s no doubt our governor, Sisolak, and the Legislature are going to have to address it somehow next session,” he said. “Now, how it comes out, no one knows. But it’s obviously going to be forefront next session and it should be.”

Erik Huey, editor of Clark County School Watch, said it was only a matter of time before the state’s chronic underfunding ended in a lawsuit. His 6-year-old daughter attends a traditional public school in North Las Vegas, where he said resources are scant compared to schools in more affluent areas.

He hopes the litigation injects significant funding into the K-12 education system and levels the playing field for all children.

“I’m glad it has happened,” said Huey, who previously worked as a teacher in the Clark County School District. “It is long overdue and hopefully this is the beginning of what will hopefully be a serious conversation.”

If more parents want to join the lawsuit, Educate Nevada Now officials said the complaint would be amended to include them. Huey, for one, said he’d consider jumping aboard.

Follow the Money: Fiore-led PAC paid daughter’s event planning company six figures over last two years

Four Vegas council members

Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore’s political action committee paid a catering and event planning company run by her daughter nearly $109,000 over the last 18 months, records show.

The Fiore-led PAC, called “Future for Nevadans,” has reported making regular payments since June of 2018 to Hamlet Events, with the listed reason for the campaign payments falling into “advertising” and “special events” categories. According to filings with the secretary of state’s office, Fiore’s daughter, Sheena Siegel, is the registered owner of Hamlet Events.

The reported six figures in expenditures paid to Hamlet Events represents nearly a quarter of the funds spent by Fiore’s PAC and nearly 20 percent of the half-million dollars raised by the committee since 2017. Political action committees in Nevada have no limit on the amount of money they can accept from donors.

There is no Nevada law prohibiting candidates from making campaign payments to family members, but Secretary of State elections chief Wayne Thorley said in an email that such payments could run afoul of the state’s prohibition on using campaign dollars for “personal use” if the family member wasn’t actually providing any goods or services, or if the family member overcharged for a service in a way that financially benefited the candidate. 

Campaign payments made by Fiore’s PAC to a business owned by her daughter highlight Nevada’s loose laws and oversight on political spending, especially with no clear definition of “personal use” or guidance on how to avoid ethical conflicts when paying family members out of campaign funds.

In an email, Fiore said that she follows “the law to the letter on all my reporting,” and that she opted to list expenses through an events planning company as opposed to individual vendors to avoid having them “called and harassed repeatedly.”

“I love my community and provide many big and intimate events or gatherings with my constituency,” she wrote in an email. “My reporting is accurate and legal by our Nevada State law. I have a choice; I could list an event company that handles all the events, or I could list Visa and pay for everything with a credit card.”

Fiore did not directly respond to questions as to what advertising or special events were managed by her daughter’s event planning company, nor if she had sought out any other firms or tried to determine whether the rate paid to Hamlet Events was at fair market value. Calls to the phone number listed on the Hamlet Events website were not returned.

Bradley Schrager, an elections attorney with Wolf, Rifkin, Shapiro, Schulman & Rabkin who often represents state Democrats in election-related cases, said Fiore’s reported spending through the PAC flirted with violating state and federal laws on use of campaign funds.

“Michele Fiore takes her contributors, the Nevada Secretary of State, and US Attorney’s office for marks,” he said in an email. “She’s betting either that no one cares or no one can stop her.”

Hamlet Events

Reported payments from Fiore’s PAC to Hamlet Events cover the period between June 2018 and the end of 2019, with all expenses filed under the categories of “advertising” and “special events.” The PAC reported making several payments (total of $15,100) to the business before it was registered with the state in October 2018.

The website for Hamlet Events includes details on possible events including baby showers, birthdays, weddings, parties, outdoor events and campaigns. Services listed in the ‘campaigns’ section include creating and sending out political mailers and mass campaign emails.

No other political campaigns have reported making any expenditures to Hamlet Events or to Siegel, according to a search of Federal Election Commission and Nevada Secretary of State records. Siegel, who was Fiore’s executive assistant in an unpaid internship role with the City of Las Vegas between August 2017 and October 2019, was paid $2,700 out of Fiore’s primary campaign account over eight payments in late 2017, with the listed expense category as “office expenses” and “special events.”

Hamlet Events is the largest vendor that received payments from the PAC, followed by payments to campaign consultants; $21,400 to SoCo Strategies, led by Zachary Moyle, and $89,000 to Alchemy Associates, an offshoot of political consulting firm Organized Karma run by consultant Ronni Council.

Fiore’s reported campaign spending has previously come under scrutiny; a 2019 Las Vegas Review-Journal story found that Fiore’s PAC and campaign had spent nearly $200,000 on “gasoline, Uber rides, travel, restaurant and grocery store tabs, furniture and her own businesses.” Fiore told the newspaper at the time that the spending was primarily for “constituent service.”

“Ward 6 has more constituent outreach and constituent events than any other ward,” Fiore wrote in a statement to the newspaper.

At least two candidates in the 2016 election cycle relied on family members for campaign work; Assemblyman William McCurdy reported spending more than $23,000 on advertising and special event-related expenses to a political consulting firm run by his parents, and former Democratic state Sen. Kelvin Atkinson paid his former husband more than $33,000 from his campaign and PAC accounts over an eight-year period. Atkinson resigned from Legislature in 2019 amid federal charges of misuse of campaign funds and was given a two-year prison sentence last year.

PAC Activities

According to the Future for Nevadans’ PAC registration form, its stated purpose is “Raising Funds to Educate Nevadans.” 

Although its raised a hefty $545,900 over the last two years, the PAC has reported making relatively little spending toward other political action committees or campaigns; $14,900 to three other political action committees, and $5,000 each to the campaigns of fellow Las Vegas City Councilwoman Victoria Seaman and the Nevada Republican Party.

Other expenses reported by the PAC include $20,000 to Fiore’s consulting firm, Politically Off The Wall, $10,000 to a fireworks display company and $16,500 at a political printing shop. The PAC also reported spending on food and gasoline primarily in 2018, including $8,700 at an Italian restaurant, $2,700 at Costco and more than $1,000 at Terrible Herbst.

Many of the contributors to the PAC are well-known in the Las Vegas business community, and include entities including the campaign of Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo ($5,000), personal injury firm Eglet Prince ($20,000) and several major real estate developers.

It received a combined $58,500 from prominent local government lobbyist Jay Brown and two affiliated business entities, Restaurant Consultants LLC and Washington D.C. Investments LLC.

Another major source of contributions came from cannabis industry executive Elizabeth Stavola and affiliated dispensary Greenmart Nevada (owned by MPX Pharmaceuticals, of which Stavola is an executive). Combined, Stavola and Greenmart contributed $37,500 to the PAC throughout 2018; MPX Pharmaceuticals announced in December 2018 that it had received a coveted retail marijuana license from the City of Las Vegas and three other municipalities.

Not all the donors are well-known. A top contributor to the PAC itself is real estate/rental homes businessman Gary Wu, who through a company called TD Associates NV LLC contributed $29,500 to the PAC. Wu is the owner of Total Max Homes, a Las Vegas-based rental and real estate company that as recently as last year was subject to complaints about violating short-term rental laws.

The Future for Nevadans PAC also reported making a $10,000 campaign payment to Wu in March 2019 for “advertising” and “travel.” Fiore’s 2020 financial disclosure form also shows that she took a trip to China in 2019 on behalf of TD Associates, with the stated purpose of “meetings.” The estimated value of the trip was $5,000.

Other major donors include a California-based real estate business called The Wellington Group, which contributed $25,000 to the PAC in April 2018. 

Fiore previously served two terms in the Assembly before mounting an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2016. She won a seat on the Las Vegas City Council in 2017 and was named mayor pro tempore in 2019.

About that independent redistricting commission

Photo of the front of the Nevada Legislature building.

Almost a decade ago, Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed political maps enacted by a Democratic Legislature.

The rejection came after both parties had been as condescending as possible toward Hispanics, with Republicans slightly more risible in showing how much they cared by packing Latinos into one congressional district.

Sandoval’s veto message insisted the Democratic plan violated the federal Voting Rights Act because it did not “afford Hispanics an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their own choosing.” (That this came from the state’s first Latino governor simply added to the spectacle.)

Eventually, a judge (with questionable authority at best) appointed three “special masters,” supposedly independent experts who drew the lines that exist today. After all the Sturm und Drang, five years later, an AP analysis determined the Assembly districts “gave more favor to Democrats in 2016 than the lower chamber of any other state legislature in the country.”

So they were fair but tilted towards the Democrats, who controlled 37 of the 63 seats in Carson City in 2011 when they drew the maps. The independent trio of conscripted cartographers had come up with different maps but ones that essentially mirrored the concepts proposed by the Democrats; that is, no awful gerrymandering had occurred.

This history becomes relevant as Nevada’s League of Women Voters, following a national League blueprint, has proposed a ballot initiative to amend the Constitution to create an independent redistricting commission. Much has been written about this already, including three excellent and very different columns on this site – showing how there is more than one way to see this effort. Not having been to Shrinking Violet School – not to mention the Your Opinion Might Not be Needed Here School – I have decided to weigh in, too.

Let’s get the common-sense stuff out of the way first: Of course, it gives elected officials an immense advantage, as the Constitution reads now, if they are allowed to (nay, mandated to) draw their own districts.  They can choose their own voters, exclude potential foes, make their longevity more likely.

Districts should be drawn fairly – but, as in all things political, fairness is in the eye of the beholder. And therein lies the rub.

The so-called Fair Maps Nevada Redistricting Reform Ballot Question seems simple enough:

The Commission will consist of seven Nevada members, four who will be appointed by the leadership of the Nevada Legislature, and three who are unaffiliated with the two largest political parties who will be appointed by the other four commissioners. Commissioners may not be partisan candidates, lobbyists, or certain relatives of such individuals. All meetings of the Commission shall be open to the public who shall have opportunities to participate in hearings before the Commission.

Let’s accept as an inarguable fact that you cannot, no matter how herculean your efforts, take politics out of this process. As Libertarian David Colborne, who supports the plan, put it: “People are political animals and the work the commission will be tasked with is political work.”

Four of the seven appointees will be ipso facto political – unless you believe that legislative leaders will suddenly have their partisan impulses dulled by the desire to be, ahem, fair. Four is a majority, if my math skills have not atrophied.

The other three will be appointed by the four whom we have already established as political. And simply because they all must be unaffiliated with the major parties does not mean they don’t, as most indies do, lean one way or another. These also will not be immaculate appointments; we can presume conversation will occur before names are put forward.

The stated goal of the commission also is evanescent. As Republican Orrin Johnson, who thinks the League is on a fool’s errand, illuminated: “The commission will be ordered to draw legislative and congressional district boundaries such that they are fair to everyone with shared ‘racial, ethnic, economic, social, cultural, geographic, or historic identities,’ and do not ‘unduly advantage or disadvantage’ any political party. "

“What’s lacking in the initiative language is a funding mechanism for the pallets of magic wands necessary to achieve this idyllic utopia.”

And then there is this part: “This amendment will require redistricting beginning in 2023 and thereafter following each federal census.”

So two years after the constitutionally mandated redistricting of 2021, which the Democrats probably will use to marginalize Republicans even more than the Republicans have worked to marginalize themselves, this commission will have the power to draw new lines. No wonder the Democrats are exercised and the Republicans are gleeful.

Indeed, the partisan reflexes have been amusing to watch.

The Democrats, who dominate Carson City (42 out of 63, larger than 2011, AND the governor) are not happy with the idea of an independent commission. (It’s no coincidence the party has ties to the pastor who found redistricting religion.)

The Democrats have worked hard to register voters, recruit better candidates and have one of the best state parties in the country (as opposed to one of the worst). Why, they argue, should they not reap the benefits of all that hard work when it comes to redistricting? Besides, they were “fair” in 2011; they will be fair in 2021 (so sorry if your seat just became competitive, Rep. Amodei….).

As for the Republicans, it is heartening to see how many of them suddenly care about map fairness. I am nearly verklempt.

Josh Hicks, a longtime Republican and former Jim Gibbons chief of staff, helped write it. Ryan Erwin, one of the best GOP consultants I know, is helping. And Chrissie Hastie, who has run many Republican PACS, is the registered agent for this initiative. All that’s missing (for now, that is) for this roster is Michael Roberson, the hardcore GOP partisan who worked with Hastie on those awful recalls and who is now the CEO of AMT, the firm founded by Billy Rogers and one of the best microtargeting shops in the country.

I stopped believing in coincidences about the same time I covered my first Nevada campaign. That notwithstanding, this much is true:  The fault, my dear Republicans, is not in unfair maps – that was settled almost 10 years ago – but in your ineptitude and the Democrats’ skill that you are underlings. Republicans have glommed onto this effort now – or at least most have – not because they believe in fairness, but because they see an opportunity to level a playing field because they are so bad at the sport played there.

As Democrat Bradley Schrager, who argued that the GOP has hijacked the League, argued, there also is some reason to believe such a panel is not needed in Nevada: 

“But as for substantive questions, what problem are you trying to solve with a redistricting commission? Has Nevada been plagued with the sort of hyper-partisan gerrymandering over generations that led to maps in North Carolina or Virginia being struck down by courts? That doesn’t seem like the case. One cannot point to single-party control of questionable legitimacy here, like in those states, where dwindling vote counts still resulted in majorities engineered by weak political parties. Nevada’s electoral swings over the years have come more or less organically, not immediately after or as a result of any redistricting.”

Schrager’s argument is quite compelling, but I actually have little doubt if the roles were reversed, the Democrats would be doing the same thing. Maybe not exactly, but a reasonable facsimile thereof.

No one gives up power willingly in politics, and no one doesn’t try to get power who does not have it. This is axiomatic.

Considering there is no such thing as an independent commission, perhaps we should rely on the third branch of government to do its job if a plan is drawn unfairly? If Republicans believe what the Democrats approve next session violates the Voting Rights Act, they can always sue, right? (Insert line here about how judges being allowed to run for office vitiates the impact of this argument….)

So the League is in a difficult position here, caught between Democratic fury and Republican love. Its cause is righteous, but I have been surprised at how the crossfire has affected its usual level-headed chief, Sondra Cosgrove, who also is a professor at CSN.

Anyone, including your humble correspondent, who has dared to ask questions about (much less criticize) the initiative is labeled “sexist” or accused of “smearing” her character. I get she is feeling a lot of heat from friends (now former?). But methinks the lady….

Maybe some people think Cosgrove is being duped by the GOP opportunists. I don’t.

But if she had simply said she would accept assistance in this difficult endeavor from anyone who wants to help, regardless of their motivations, that would have been more helpful — and credible.

It also would have served her better, because a commission designed to bleed partisanship out of the most political acts there is – elected officials trying to protect their existence in the system – is about to spark one of the most intense partisan battles in state annals.

Redistricting: The maps are not the territory

Photo of the front of the Nevada Legislature building.

By Bradley Schrager

In early November, the Nevada chapter of the League of Women Voters filed a petition with the Secretary of State to amend the state constitution to form an ‘independent citizens commission’ responsible for drawing the maps for legislative and congressional redistricting. If enough valid signatures are gathered between now and next June—97,598 signatures is the threshold—the measure would have to pass twice, at the 2020 and 2022 general elections in order to become law. 

Although redistricting is already the task of the 2021 Nevada Legislature, the proposed measure would force a redundant round of further map-drawing in 2023.

There are a number of questions the League needs to answer for anyone thinking of supporting this initiative, and chief among them is why it has apparently permitted the Nevada Republican Party to hijack its good name. After decades of nonpartisan activity, it either has licensed itself out to GOP opportunists willingly, or has permitted itself to serve as host to some very dull right-wing parasites. This petition is now—it can hardly be denied, for anyone paying attention—a Republican ballot measure.

But as for substantive questions, what problem are you trying to solve with a redistricting commission? Has Nevada been plagued with the sort of hyper-partisan gerrymandering over generations that led to maps in North Carolina or Virginia being struck down by courts? That doesn’t seem like the case. One cannot point to single-party control of questionable legitimacy here, like in those states, where dwindling vote counts still resulted in majorities engineered by weak political parties. Nevada’s electoral swings over the years have come more or less organically, not immediately after or as a result of any redistricting. 

In 2011, split government led to court-dawn maps, after a gubernatorial veto. The resulting maps were close to what the Democrats had proposed, and the court accepted the efficient Democratic concept that two Assembly seats should be nested within every Senate district. In other words, there was no legitimate complaint that the process had been rigged unfairly. Ask yourself honestly, did Democrats end the decade with legislative majorities because they appealed to Nevada voters more successfully than did the GOP, or because of maps drawn eight years ago? 

Don’t like incumbents or the ‘political class,’ as a general rule? The mechanics of incumbent advantages in elections are built into campaigns, not just geographic districts. Incumbents have resources and recognition that are, and always will be, difficult to overcome. And more than a decade of term limits in Nevada has led, quite clearly, to more rapid turnover in legislative offices—even faster than just the 12-year term limit, as elected officials seek opportunities as they arise, not just at the close of final terms. 

Do you want lower registration advantages in new districts, so we have closer races at the polls? That seems to reflect some misplaced faith 1) that you can actually arrange closer races to suit your tastes, and 2) that closer races make better politics, or result in more responsive or enlightened government, when it is just as likely that it will require more money in politics and encourage more shrill campaigning. Unless the League has a simultaneous plan simply to manufacture more Republicans across the state, this is just technocratic arrogance. How is this petition anything other than an artificial propping-up of a Nevada GOP that has shown neither the organizational ability nor the political will to attract a growing number of voters to its platforms and candidates?

Seen that way, it is no surprise that Republican donors and operatives attached themselves to this ‘independent’ effort from its inception, and appear to be involved in every step of the development of this initiative petition. Those types are craven but not stupid, and they know an opportunity, a shortcut, when they see one. This is a chance for the GOP to gerrymander—to gain redistricting advantages unwarranted by electoral performance—while fighting publicly under a deceptive anti-gerrymandering banner. That sort of cynicism normally, and rightfully, goes unrewarded. 

Do not forget that this is a GOP that attempted to force mid-decade redistricting in 2015, when fleetingly in the majority, and followed that up with the risible recall campaigns against three sitting state senators. Now it’s ‘nonpartisanship’ and ‘good government’ for all, is it? You can try to sell that, just as President Trump can try to sell his general concern for worldwide corruption while heading a voraciously kleptocratic administration, but do not expect voters to be so easily misled.

But if this commission proposal is a solution to a nonexistent problem, attracting the usual political reptiles, how would it actually work, by its own terms.

Not very well. The commission itself is situated in some strange, new, invented political branch, both in and out of the Legislature, an unelected tribunal exercising what the petition labels ‘legislative functions.’ This already renders it constitutionally suspect. 

The appointment process for commission members is a hash. Four political appointees will appoint three further members who, apparently, are not permitted to have been interested in politics much at all. None of them can even have been registered with a major party for four years previous, a requirement that seems to indulge rather than dissolve the idea that party registration is an indelible and disfiguring aspect of one’s self these days.

Any final plans for district maps must garner the votes not only of a super-majority of commission members (5 of 7), but also must have those votes spread among its GOP, Democratic, and nonpartisan members. This may sound like it encourages earnest cooperation, but it also serves as an easy veto; any party can withhold its approval of any proposal which it does not like, and force map-drawing into court. Let me restate that: This plan to bring both independence and fellowship into redistricting contains within it the express, immediate ability of its partisan participants to wreck the process entirely, for any reason or no reason at all. 

The League’s proposal creates a questionable constitutional body; arranges its membership haphazardly; permits no-fault veto of its maps by any dissatisfied party; and ends up exactly where we were in 2011, in district court. It rewards poor electoral performance, and therefore probably discourages the self-examination, reform, and renewal that all political parties periodically must undergo. It is neither accurate in its diagnoses nor healthy in its prescriptions. 

So enough with the posturing about independence and floating above the partisan fray. Enough with the clichés about maps drawn in “smoke-filled backrooms,” as the League says on it blog, an image as tiresome as “cigar-chomping union bosses.” The League ought, more profitably, declare exactly what its deeper concerns are regarding our elections and politics, and then engage on changes that would address them with as many people as it can. This redistricting commission proposal, however, declares little and fixes even less, and turns its nonpartisan label into a hostage the League of Women Voters has handed over to fortune.

Bradley Schrager is an attorney with Wolf, Rifkin, Shapiro, Schulman & Rabkin, LLP. He formerly served as general counsel to the Nevada State Democratic Party.