As Lombardo campaigns for governor in sheriff’s uniform, state law, ethics commission guidance remain hazy on propriety of doing so

It’s no secret Joe Lombardo is running for governor on his record as Clark County sheriff.

When he kicked off his gubernatorial campaign last month, he said he would distinguish himself from his Republican primary opponents by taking the “law and order lane.” A biography on Lombardo’s campaign website emphasizes his more than 30 years of experience in law enforcement. A campaign video touts that his life’s work has been to “serve and protect.”

It’s common for candidates to talk on the campaign trail about how their day jobs and prior elected offices would shape their approach in office. But Lombardo has made the fact he is the current Clark County sheriff all but impossible to ignore in the first month of his campaign. A photo on his website shows him grinning broadly in uniform. The campaign video features clips with Lombardo in full uniform walking and talking with constituents. A pamphlet handed out during a meet-and-greet displays Lombardo, hands on his hips, with a sheriff’s badge prominently placed on his chest. 

What isn’t quite as clear is whether Lombardo is actually allowed to use the imagery of his elected office — including his uniform and badge — to campaign for another one. Existing decisions surrounding the topic only address cases in which a sheriff was running for re-election, and even those are not etched in stone.

When reached for comment about the legal uncertainty surrounding the topic, Lombardo’s campaign strategist, Ryan Erwin, told The Nevada Independent that Lombardo is a police officer and sheriff, and Nevada voters are entitled to know and see what he does for a living. He also said that knowing a candidate’s work experience is vital when selecting a governor.

“Judges regularly appear in robes, teachers in classrooms, and prosecutors in courtrooms as part of their campaign materials - all are public employees in positions of trust,” Erwin said. “Singling out law enforcement from other positions of public trust makes no sense.”

Erwin added that elections and rules governing them should always be fairly applied and politicians use photos from events in campaign materials all the time.

Under state law, public officials and employees cannot use government time, property, equipment or other resources to benefit themselves or anyone else. But the law is mum on whether an officer or other public official using their uniform or badge while campaigning presents an actual conflict of interest. 

David Hall, executive director of the Nevada Commission on Ethics, declined to comment on Lombardo’s use of his badge and uniform in his gubernatorial campaign, noting that it’s up to a public officer or employee to ask the commission for an opinion detailing the compliance obligations associated with their own conduct.

Reviews by the Commission on Ethics, an eight-member body appointed by the governor and Legislative Commission charged with interpreting and enforcing Nevada’s ethics laws, occur on a case-by-case basis to account for nuance and different situations. Commission decisions can result in a letter of caution or a fine, but the consequences of any given review are case-dependent.

“We encourage these public officers and public employees to utilize the advisory opinion process should they have questions about their individual compliance obligations under the Ethics Law,” Hall wrote in an email.

Though there is no word on whether the commission has been asked to take up Lombardo’s case, this isn’t the first time the issue of using the accoutrements of the sheriff’s office to campaign has come before the commission. The commission has penned at least three orders over the last seven years relating to sheriffs’ abilities to use official uniforms, badges and “other physical accouterments” of the office to support re-election campaigns — including one that prompted the commission to reach out to the state sheriffs' association in an attempt to prevent the issue from arising again.

In 2014, the commission determined that then-Washoe County Deputy Sheriff Tim Kuzanek’s use of his uniform and badge in his campaign for sheriff acted as a visual endorsement and provided an unfair advantage to Kuzanek at the expense of the government. Kuzanek was not, however, punished for the use of his uniform and badge because the commission concluded that Kuzanek’s actions were not a willful violation of the law in this particular case.

When the question again arose in 2016, during a commission investigation into then-Elko County Sheriff Jim Pitts, the body dismissed the alleged violations because state law does not explicitly prohibit an officer from using uniforms or badges in campaigns.

“The issue of whether an elected, incumbent sheriff may campaign in uniform is one of first impression for the State of Nevada and the Commission, and has not been addressed by Nevada’s courts or Legislature,” the commission wrote in its opinion. “Without State or local law governing or clarifying duties of elected incumbents regarding utilization of the accoutrements of office, the parties stipulate to dismissal of the alleged violation.”

The commission’s most recent ruling on the matter was in 2018, when the panel investigated then-Storey County Sheriff Gerald Antinoro’s decision to wear his sheriff uniform during debates and in photos used in campaign materials while running for re-election. In that case, the commission decided the campaign had not violated ethics law based on prior precedent and Antinoro’s lack of knowledge about rules and regulations. 

However, the commission noted in its decision that an elected sheriff’s use of official accouterments of office to support re-election creates an “appearance of impropriety” and violates the state’s ethics law, a point it underscored by sending a letter to the Nevada Sheriffs’ and Chiefs’ Association recommending the association inform its members of the ethics commission’s position on the matter.

“Under the Ethics Law, public officers and employees have a duty to avoid conflicts of interest and protect the public’s faith in the appropriate separation between the use of government resources and private endeavors,” the letter said. “Specifically, a public officer or employee must not use official government resources in support of a political campaign.”

That ethics commission position isn’t, however, codified in state law, leaving the use of uniforms and badges in campaign materials an open question.

During the most recent legislative session, Assemblywoman Robin Titus (R-Wellington) proposed a bill, AB218, that would have allowed sheriffs to use physical accouterments in campaigns. Though the bill received a hearing, it died without receiving a vote in its first committee.

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

Sign in front of the Nevada State Capitol building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storey County pays former sheriff’s deputy $250,000 as part of out-of-court settlement over sexual harassment lawsuit

Lady Justice perched atop the Nevada Supreme Court building

A former Storey County Sheriff’s deputy will receive $250,000 as part of an out-of-court settlement stemming from a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against county Sheriff Gerald Antinoro.

Representatives for Melanie Keener, the former sheriff’s deputy who sued Antinoro for sexual harassment in July 2017, announced Thursday that she will receive the settlement funds after her attorneys and attorneys for Storey County agreed to drop the lawsuit in federal court. As part of the settlement, Keener will leave employment with the county at the end of December and will receive paid administrative leave until her employment ends. 

The settlement, which will be paid by Storey County and was approved by the County Commission earlier this month, draws to a close a nearly two-year saga between Keener and Antinoro that drew substantial state and national media attention to the tiny county 30 miles southeast of Reno.

Keener, a 15-year police veteran, filed the lawsuit against Antinoro alleging sexual harassment and employment discrimination after she accused him of sending her sexually charged text messages during a 2015 law enforcement conference in Ely, and then sharing explicit details of his sex life during a car ride back the next day. Keener was removed from her position in the sheriff’s office after filing a sexual harassment complaint and transferred to a position at a county museum.

But Keener’s lawsuit and subsequent depositions of Antinoro and other county employees revealed that at least 10 complaints, including others involving sexual harassment, had been filed against Antinoro during his time in office. Although an investigation by former Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s office did not find Antinoro had committed any “criminal offenses” that fell within the statute of limitations, news of his behavior in office quickly became toxic and a political issue in several 2018 races. Antinoro, who beat back a recall effort in 2017, was elected to another four-year term in the 2018 midterm elections.

Judge rules discrimination lawsuit against Storey County sheriff can continue

Lady Justice perched atop the Nevada Supreme Court building

A federal District Court judge has issued a ruling that will allow portions of a sexual discrimination lawsuit against embattled Storey County Sheriff Gerald Antinoro to proceed to trial.

An order issued by Nevada District Court Judge Robert Jones on Monday dismissed a sexual harassment claim filed against Antinoro by a former deputy, Melanie Keener, but allows her claims related to emotional duress and civil rights violations to proceed. No trial date has been set, but it is likely to come sometime this year.

“While Ms. Keener is disappointed that her sexual harassment claims, which are statutory in nature, will not be heard, she is thrilled that Judge Jones has ruled in her favor and that the majority of the claim will go forward to trial,” Keener’s attorney Gus Flangas said in a statement.

Keener, a 15-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, filed a lawsuit against Antinoro in July 2017 alleging sexual harassment and employment discrimination after she accused him of sending her sexually suggestive text messages during a 2015 law enforcement conference in Ely and then sharing explicit details of his sex life during a car ride back the next day.

Keener alleged in the suit that she was transferred from her position in the sheriff’s department after filing a sexual harassment complaint against Antinoro and was later transferred to a position at the county’s museum. Later depositions with Storey County government employees indicated that Antinoro had been the subject of around 10 complaints, several related to sexual harassment.

In his order, Jones wrote that Keener had failed to exhaust the administrative remedies required before bringing charges related to sexual harassment, but denied Antinoro and the county’s request to dismiss the other claims of negligence and emotional duress.

“In the light most favorable to the Plaintiff, a jury could find that the Plaintiff has adequately shown the necessary elements for this cause of action,” he wrote.

Through her attorney, Keener filed a similar lawsuit in federal court in September 2018. She is seeking monetary compensation and attorney’s fees in the current lawsuit. An investigation by former Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s office did not find Antinoro had committed any “criminal offenses” that fell within the statute of limitations.

Antinoro, who beat back a recall effort in 2017, was elected to another four-year term in the 2018 midterm elections.

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