Police union launches campaign attacking Cannizzaro over alleged lack of support for law enforcement

State Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro on Friday, July 31, 2020, during the first day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City.

The Las Vegas Police Protective Association is going on the offensive against Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, kicking off an independent expenditure campaign against the Democrat’s re-election campaign after lawmakers rolled back a bill granting additional protections to officers accused of misconduct.

The LVPPA, which represents active and retired members of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, has created a political action committee and launched a website, social media ads and two videos attacking Cannizzaro for allegedly siding with “criminals over law enforcement”. Cannizzaro is locked in a re-election race against Republican April Becker, who has been endorsed by the LVPPA. 

It’s the latest development in an acrimonious political divorce between state Democrats and the LVPPA, which broke from the ranks of most organized labor organizations to endorse President Donald Trump and a mix of other Republicans on the 2020 ballot, including congressional and state Senate Republican hopefuls.

In a statement, Senate Democratic Caucus Executive Director Cheryl Bruce said the attack was disappointing given that Cannizzaro is employed as a prosecutor with the Clark County district attorney’s office, working in the office’s gang unit.

“At the same time LVPPA is sending out blatantly false information about her record on public safety, Senator Cannizzaro is prosecuting a double homicide case, among other violent criminal cases,” she said in an email. “Attacking a prosecutor who is risking her own safety to keep our streets and families safe is the worst kind of lie.”

Though the union endorsed Cannizzaro and all other state Senate Democratic candidates in the 2016 election cycle, it soured on the Democratic Senate leader after lawmakers in a late summer special session approved a bill rolling back parts of a 2019 bill that granted several powers and protections to officers accused of misconduct. 

Criminal justice advocates pushed hard for that legislation, SB2, amid a nationwide reckoning and renewed focus on police violence and misconduct stemming from the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But it was opposed by several police unions, including the LVPPA, as an unnecessary reaction removing protections for accused officers.

The LVPPA did not return an email request for comment.

The campaign so far includes a 15-second video stating Cannizzaro is “on the wrong side of the law” after passing a bill that “lowered sentences for drug traffickers and burglers (sic).” Similar language is used in a Facebook ad that began running on Wednesday, stating “our families aren’t safe with Nicole Cannizzaro.”

It’s an extremely simplified reference to a 157-page bill passed in the 2019 Legislature, AB236, a sweeping criminal justice reform measure that originated from a Department of Justice study and recommendations as to how to cut costs and reduce the state’s prison population. Among its many changes included lowering the state’s “strict” rules on drug possession and sales, and changes to state laws on burglary 

The bill was initially opposed by police departments and prosecutors, but was amended in the Senate by Cannizzaro to address some of those concerns raised by district attorneys and other law enforcement agencies. The final version of the bill passed on a 19-2 vote in the Senate.

Per legislative minutes, the LVPPA did not testify on the bill during any of the three public hearings held on the measure.

That social media ad redirects to a website — “Corrupt Cannizzaro” — that outlines a barrage of attacks against her, including supporting bills that her lobbyist husband’s clients supported, attempting to raise her salary (through supporting a change to annual legislative sessions), raising taxes and holding “closed-door” special sessions over the summer.

Democrats currently enjoy a 13-8 seat advantage in the 21-member state Senate, but are playing defense in two suburban Las Vegas districts (Cannizzaro and termed-out Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse) while backing candidates against Republican Sens. Scott Hammond and Heidi Gansert.

Cannizzaro, who took over the Senate majority leader position in 2019 after the resignation of former Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, who pled guilty to federal charges of misappropriation of campaign funds for personal use. She won a narrow victory over former Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman in the 2016 general election, prevailing by slightly more than 1,000 votes out of more than 56,000 cast.

Cannizzaro has been endorsed by the Nevada Association of Public Safety Officers (NAPSO), a separate organization representing more than two dozen law enforcement organizations. That organization is separate from the “Public Safety Alliance of Nevada,” which includes the LVPPA.

“She has a strong record on public safety, and that’s why as Nevada’s largest law enforcement Coalition, we continue to proudly endorse her re-election campaign,” NAPSO Executive Director Rick McCann said in an email. “We know Nicole, and we trust her.”

Imprisoned ex-Senate Majority Leader Atkinson given compassionate release amid coronavirus pandemic

Kelvin Atkinson, a former top Nevada state lawmaker who was convicted last year for campaign finance and wire act violations, was granted an early compassionate release Friday evening by a federal judge because of concerns about his possible susceptibility to COVID-19.

The order, issued Friday by Nevada District Court Judge James Mahan, commutes Atkinson’s sentence to credit for time served, ordering him released within 72 hours and requiring him self-quarantine at home for a period of 14 days. The order also requires him to serve the remainder of his original sentence under supervised release — home arrest — without electronic monitoring.

Atkinson had been sentenced to 27 months in federal prison and more than $249,000 in fines in July 2019 for misappropriating more than $450,000 in campaign funds for personal use between 2010 and 2017. He resigned from the Legislature on March 9, 2019 and pled guilty to federal charges against him just two days later. Atkinson would finally report to prison on October 18.

Many details of Atkinson’s situation, including his health condition, were not available because the documents were filed under seal. Atkinson filed the initial emergency request for an expedited release on March 27, with his attorney noting that his prison facility in California has been in lockdown since April 1.

But an attorney for Atkinson wrote in a sealed request — referenced by the federal judge in his order —  that the former lawmaker has a “unique susceptibility to the COVID-19 infection,” but did not provide any additional details, beyond a note from a physician stating that the virus “could result” in his death. 

Atkinson’s attorney did not immediately return a request for comment.

Per Mahan’s order, Atkinson stated that no one at the USP Atwater prison facility in California provided him with cleaning products, such as lysol or bleach, and that staff members are not following social distancing guidelines and he “has not seen extra efforts of staff members making rounds to disinfect or take inmates’ temperatures to see if anyone has a fever.”

While the U.S. attorney’s office response was also filed under seal, Mahan’s order states that the government argued Atkinson “has not shown that his medical condition substantially diminishes his ability to care for himself at this time,” and that he has access to “effective cleaning products.”

The order requires Atkinson to serve the remaining three years of supervised release on top of the commuted sentence, and forbids him from leaving his residence other than for medical necessities or those approved by a probation officer. The judge also suspended an employment and community service requirement for early release, given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Atkinson was first elected to the Assembly in 2002, and would later join the Senate in 2012. He eventually rose to become the chamber’s majority leader in 2019, a job in which he served for just over two months before his surprise resignation on the Senate floor.

Read the release order below:

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.

Terms limits, higher ambitions mean at least 11 open seats in the Legislature in 2020

The inside of the Nevada Legislature during State of the State

About a dozen seats in the Legislature will have no incumbent in the race in the 2020 election, setting the stage for some fierce competition when candidates formally file to run in March, according to an analysis from The Nevada Independent.

Five Assembly members are eschewing a bid for re-election and setting their eyes on higher office. That includes Democratic Assemblywoman Dina Neal, who’s seeking to replace appointed Sen. Marcia Washington in a heavily Democratic district that was held by ex-Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson before his resignation and conviction for misusing campaign funds.

Atkinson is currently serving a two-year sentence in a federal penitentiary in Atwater, California, near Merced.

Term limits, which cap a lawmaker’s service at 12 years in each chamber, will prevent Sen. David Parks and Sen. Joyce Woodhouse from re-election. Senate Democrats have endorsed Kristee Watson to replace Woodhouse, but Assembly Democratic colleagues Richard Carrillo and Ellen Spiegel will have to compete against each other for the opportunity to replace Parks.

Assemblyman William McCurdy II is running for the Clark County Commission seat now held by termed-out Commissioner Lawrence Weekly. But it’s not a straight shot — at least three other candidates want the seat, including North Las Vegas Councilman Isaac Barron, Clark County public information administrator Tanya Flanagan and Democratic Sen. Mo Denis.

Denis will have a soft landing if he doesn’t prevail. He’s halfway through a four-year Senate term and can return to the Senate if the commission election doesn’t work out.

Democratic Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo is passing up another go at the Assembly in favor of a bid for a Nevada Supreme Court seat. The terms of two of the seven justices on the high court will be ending just after the 2020 election.

Other incumbents who won’t be running for their seats include Republican Assemblyman John Hambrick, who is prevented by term limits from another bid. 

Democratic Assemblyman Greg Smith — who was appointed from a field of 15 hopefuls to finish the term of Assemblyman Mike Sprinkle when Sprinkle resigned amid sexual harassment allegations — said he won’t run. Smith cited the death of his wife, former state Sen. Debbie Smith, as a reminder that “life is short” and that he doesn’t want to run a campaign every two years. 

A seat held by Democratic Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson, who died unexpectedly in May at age 51 and was not replaced, is also open in 2020.

Three incumbents did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Nevada Independent on whether they would seek re-election. They include Democratic Assembly members Steve Yeager, Heidi Swank and Bea Duran.

Twelve senators — including Denis — are mid-term and do not have to mount an election to maintain their current posts. All others whose terms are up confirmed directly to the Indy or through a public announcement that they would run for their current seats in 2020. 

It won’t be easy for all of them, especially lawmakers in some of the swingiest seats. Democratic Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen will have to defend her seat in a challenge from former Assemblyman Stephen Silberkraus.

Democratic Assemblywoman Shea Backus has at least two Republican challengers in her swing district, including former congressional candidate Michelle Mortenson and Andy Matthews, who played a key role in Republican Adam Laxalt’s unsuccessful bid for governor in 2018.

Democratic Assemblyman Skip Daly faces a challenge from Republican mental health practitioner Jake Wiskerchen in a district that he once won by a mere 38 votes.

And in the Senate, expect tough races in three swing districts: Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro and Sen. Heidi Gansert have already launched campaigns to defend their seats. Watson and Republican Carrie Buck, a school principal who lost a close race in the district in 2016, are expected to run competitive campaigns for Woodhouse’s seat. 

Woodhouse isn’t about to make the race easy for Buck, who volunteered to replace Woodhouse had a Republican attempt to recall the senator in 2017 prevailed. Woodhouse released text messages to The Nevada Independent last week that Buck sent earlier this year trying to apologize for her role in the recall effort and asking for Woodhouse’s help applying for a state superintendent job.

Democrats have called the failed recall campaigns “careless and cynical attempts to undermine our Democratic process,” and Woodhouse called Buck’s texts “inappropriate” and “unseemly.” Buck, for her part, said the messages were a “peace offering” and said the retiring senator has a “vendetta.”

Appointed lawmakers Marcia Washington and Greg Smith will not run for Legislature in 2020

Senator Marcia Washington, seated

Two lawmakers who were appointed to fill unexpected vacancies during the 2019 session say they will not run for the seats in 2020.

Democratic Sen. Marcia Washington, whom county commissioners appointed in March to serve the remainder of former Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson’s term after he resigned, says she will not run for re-election.

Washington said at the time of her appointment and in an email to The Nevada Independent on Tuesday that she did not intend to keep the seat. Atkinson’s term would have ended in 2020.

Democratic Assemblyman Greg Smith also will not seek re-election, saying “life is short” and he did not want to have to spend every other year campaigning. Smith was appointed by the Washoe County Commission in March after former Assemblyman Mike Sprinkle resigned amid sexual harassment allegations.

Smith was married to former state lawmaker Debbie Smith, who passed away in 2016 after fighting brain cancer. He was appointed from a field of 15 Democratic contenders to represent Assembly District 30, which includes the Sparks area.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have endorsed Assemblywoman Dina Neal to take Washington’s seat after Neal’s Assembly term ends next year. Neal has expressed her intent to represent the heavily Democratic Senate District 4 ever since she applied for the post in March, when Atkinson resigned and announced he would plead guilty to a federal charge of misusing campaign funds.

“As a lifelong resident of Senate District 4, I fully intend to represent the people and the historic neighborhoods where I grew up,” Neal said in the press release from Nevada Senate Democratic Caucus announcing her bid and the endorsement.

In the March appointment vote, Neal received support from Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Commissioner Lawrence Weekly, but Commissioners Larry Brown, Justin Jones, Michael Naft and Tick Segerblom voted in opposition. The board voted unanimously to appoint Washington instead.

If Neal’s campaign for Senate District 4 is successful, she will preside over an area very similar to her current Assembly District 7, but with expansion southward including the Corridor of Hope.

The Corridor of Hope is an area with a high concentration of people experiencing homelessness and organizations that providing emergency shelters, food and other medical, housing and support systems.

Homelessness activists reprimanded Neal in the last legislative session for gutting a bill, AB73, that would have authorized municipalities to place place new taxes that would create dedicated streams of revenue for cities to expand homelessness services. In April, Neal added an amendment to the bill, which passed, that eliminated the tax provisions and called for more input from county commissioners.

If Neal wins the seat, she would follow in the footsteps of her father, former Sen. Joe Neal, who represented Senate District 4 from 1973 to 2001.

FBI public corruption specialist retires, takes wealth of knowledge into politics and P.I. work

When I heard Joe Dickey had retired as an FBI supervisory special agent and was starting his own private investigations business with an emphasis on political campaigns, I couldn’t help smiling.

Joe Dickey, the Las Vegas FBI’s most experienced public corruption agent, working on the inside of Nevada politics? Talk about a curveball.

But there he was, sipping a decaf at a Starbucks, laughing at the irony of mixing with members of the crowd he often worked against in a 20-year career spent almost exclusively in Southern Nevada.

For those unfamiliar with Dickey’s efforts, he led the “Operation G-Sting” investigation in the early 2000s, which led to the convictions of four Clark County commissioners, Erin Kenny, Dario Herrera, Mary Kincaid-Chauncey, and ex-cop Lance Malone. Two San Diego city council members also went down during the probe along with strip club mogul Michael Galardi, who was convicted for playing in both cities.

More recently, Dickey’s squad nailed Las Vegas City Councilman Ricki Barlow and state Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson for illegally skimming their campaign contributions for personal use. Both investigations led to convictions and have raised the bar in Nevada when it comes to the traditional practice of politicians using their campaign accounts as glorified ATMs. Before that, most politicians who tapped the campaign piggy bank received no more than stern looks and wrist slaps here.

Let’s just say Dickey may have trouble breaking the ice with some elected officials, people who have had to slug it out on the muddy campaign trail and raise small fortunes just to remain competitive. It’s not easy staying clean in the Silver State, and raising funds can also raise ethical dilemmas.

So, does he envision a problem developing trust?

“I hope not,” he says. “I’m not in law enforcement anymore. I take what I’ve learned and will try to help people stay out of trouble.” He also plans to bring his own ethics and judgment to the new assignment as the face behind JD Consulting & Investigations.

He wouldn’t be the first ex-fed or Metro detective to hang out a P.I. shingle, but few who’ve tried spent most of their careers working public corruption cases. Where some might see a stigma and suspect he might be too square for the game, Dickey sees an opportunity to raise the bar and remind skeptics of the many good people in politics.

“People think it’s worse than it really is, I believe,” Dickey says. “I think the vast majority of politicians are in it for the right reasons. There are the few that spoil the whole bunch, quite frankly.”

Campaigns run on more than cash stump speeches. They’re also fueled by research and background investigations. Consider it his strong suit.

“I’ve seen a lot and learned a lot,” says Dickey, whose wife is a local school teacher. The couple has a son and daughter in college. “As far as opposition research and vulnerability assessments, issue management, I think I can bring a lot to the table to help good people get elected and help good people stay in office.”

That investigative skill set could come in handy as the behemoth 2020 election cycle heats up and not just candidates, but contributors are scrutinized. Although he’s focusing on politics, which he calls a longtime passion, he’ll also pursue more traditional investigations involving business and the casino industry in a highly competitive market.

His desire to work for the kind of people he’d be proud voting for will be just one challenge to the new work. For a guy whose worn a white hat, the gray areas can be tricky.

With the bureau, his interest in politics led him to raise his hand in 1999 when Special-Agent-In-Charge Grant Ashley drew up and started the first public corruption unit in the history of the local FBI office, which had been kept busy over the years with graft cases involving county commissioners, state legislators, and judges.

That hotline approach generated leads that eventually turned into Operation G-Sting. Dickey came away from that investigation and others with perspectives on the nature of the beast. In the end, three current and one former commissioner were convicted.

“We had a quorum,” he says with some satisfaction. The case was like many corruption investigations in that it was essentially greed-based. Despite all the pay, perquisites and profile of elected office, a few politicians are never satisfied.

“It boils down to greed,” Dickey says. “It’s nothing more than greed. They get into it for themselves and not for the public’s interest. And greed takes over, and they make mistakes.”

Some successful candidates, especially those who entered the game with meager means, have difficulty adjusting when they suddenly find themselves in fast company.

“They start running in circles they’ve never run in before,” he says. “They kind of get starry eyed about it.”

In politics, forgetting where you came from can cost a candidate more than an election. It can also take away freedom and ruin a reputation.

Nevada’s traditional liberal campaign laws have only fed its reputation as a player’s paradise. Dickey recalls that during the G-Sting investigation, San Diego council members were running for office with $20,000 budgets. In Southern Nevada, commission races were being waged with seven-figure war chests.

And seeing officials Barlow and Atkinson use their campaign accounts for personal use made a mockery of the process. “Why take a bribe when you can accept a contribution?”

“Those were two cases where federally we went after state and local officials,” he says. “It had never really been done that way before. I’m really proud of that. It’s an accomplishment, a sea change that we were able to make. I hope that that will cause people to think twice about using their campaign funds for personal use.”

In a state with a rich history of political shenanigans and outright graft, Dickey’s expressed standards made me wonder whether his phone will ring. He doesn’t seem too concerned about that.

If it does, it’s possible Nevada politics will never be the same.

And who says that’s a bad thing?

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

SEIU executive board member announces campaign for McCurdy’s open Assembly seat

Photo of the front of the Nevada Legislature building.
Shondra Summers-Armstrong. Courtesy Shondra Summers-Armstrong.

Democrat Shondra Summers-Armstrong announced this week that she is launching a campaign for Assembly District 6, a seat currently held by Democrat William McCurdy II.

The district, in which 62 percent of voters are registered Democrats, includes the area south and east of the North Las Vegas Airport and north of US Route 95. McCurdy announced plans to vacate the seat to run for Clark County Commission in 2020.

“Too many people right now are struggling every month to make ends meet and afford basic expenses,” Summers-Armstrong said in a press release. “I’m going to make sure that our community continues to have a strong advocate in Carson City and that our voices are heard.”

This spring, Summers-Armstrong was one of 11 candidates who applied for an appointment to the Senate District 4 seat, which had been vacated after then-Democratic Sen. Kelvin Atkinson pled guilty to misusing campaign funds and resigned. The Clark County Commission appointed Democrat Marcia Washington to the seat in March.

She had also sought to replace Las Vegas City Councilman Ricki Barlow in a crowded special election in 2018.

For more than two years, Summers-Armstrong has served as chief steward with the SEIU for the Regional Transportation Commission. Since May, she has been an executive board member of SEIU Nevada, which represents thousands of health care workers and public employees in the state.

If elected, Summers-Armstrong would succeed another legislator with an SEIU connection—McCurdy has worked as an SEIU organizer.

According to a press release, advocating for cash bail reform is one reason Summers-Armstrong decided to run for office.

Cash bail reform has been a hot topic in North Las Vegas districts. In March, Assemblyman McCurdy facilitated a criminal justice town hall at Pearson Community Center in which several Nevada lawmakers discussed cash bail and other issues related to criminal justice reform.

Summers-Armstrong noted in her campaign announcement that she has resided for 20 years in West Las Vegas — an area where historic preservation and development have recently garnered attention, especially the Moulin Rouge in District 6. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Moulin Rouge was the nation’s first racially integrated hotel.

The Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority has considered developing a new casino and public housing complex on the site of the now-demolished Moulin Rouge. In meetings with the housing authority, some Historic Westside residents and officials have expressed concerns about handing over such a culturally significant property to developers.

Primary elections for the Legislature are scheduled for June 9.

This story was updated at 3:57 p.m. on Sept. 5, 2019 to note McCurdy's affiliation with SEIU.

Indy Q&A: U.S. Attorney Nick Trutanich on sex trafficking, marijuana and public corruption

Nicholas A. Trutanich, United States Attorney for the District of Nevada and Ray Johnson, Assistant Special Agent in Charge for the Federal Bureau of Investigation

Scores of first responders, victim advocates and local and federal law enforcement personnel crammed into a lecture hall in Reno last week to exchange information on how to tackle the issue of human trafficking.

Speakers walked attendees through everything from the signs that a massage parlor is a front for an illegal brothel to an overview about the steps law enforcement is taking to respond to such cases. The issue has garnered greater attention in recent years, with Nevada lawmakers passing several bills in recent sessions aimed at curbing the practice.

One of the faces at the forefront of efforts against human trafficking is Nick Trutanich, U.S. attorney for the District of Nevada, whose office is tasked with investigating many such cases.

The Nevada Independent caught up with Trutanich at the seminar to discuss the challenges of those prosecutions, as well as his office’s priorities on marijuana enforcement and recent, high-profile public corruption cases.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: The federal Department of Justice worked to convict 526 people nationwide for human trafficking last year. Do you think that reflects the true scope of the problem, or is it much bigger?

A: With respect to human trafficking, as awareness is raised, both in law enforcement and in the community, we're seeing more reports of human trafficking, more investigations and more prosecutions. Prosecutions have grown exponentially in the Department of Justice nationwide, 82 percent in the last four years compared to the four years before that. So I submit that with respect to trafficking, as public awareness raises, we're going to send more and more prosecutions.

Q: How many prosecutions have there been in Nevada?

A: The office prosecutes about one to two human trafficking cases a year. These cases are resource-intensive, not only from the trauma-informed prosecution side — making sure that the victim, the survivor of human trafficking, has the resources that he or she needs to make a better life for … him or herself afterwards. But also from the investigatory and prosecution side. These criminals, these traffickers, do this in the shadows. They don't interact, typically, with the johns. They have the person being trafficked do that. They do those negotiations. And so they … also manipulate, through force, fraud and coercion, their victims. And so all of that leads to a very resource-intensive case, which quite often ends in a trial, which is also resource-intensive. So we have a small office, it's a priority area. The department considers it a priority area as seen by the numbers. 

Q: The Raiders are coming to Las Vegas, the city is growing, and a lot of big events are expected to come to town. Do you expect this will draw more trafficking?

A: Both anecdotally and through the academic literature about human trafficking, it's clear that special events typically draw human traffickers and their victims because of the demand side for these problems. So far our strategy with respect to any special events in law enforcement and working with NGOs is to raise awareness and make sure that if you see something, say something and be vigilant to investigate around these events … The good news in Nevada when it ... comes to special events is we have buy-in from industry. We have decals on every stall in every bathroom in the airport to make sure that trafficking victims have the tools that they need to exit the life. 

Q: What is the typical situation in which you see trafficking occur? Is it in massage parlors? Motels?

A: There's certainly an issue with respect to labor and human trafficking in various industries throughout the state. I'll go back to the last prosecution that our office did. This was an individual with ties to criminal enterprise, ties to gangs. Gangs are using human trafficking as a way to fund their criminal enterprises. Unlike narcotics and drugs, gang members, traffickers, can resell a human victim over and over and over again, making that victim a profit center. So in that particular case, it's the Brandon Pruitt prosecution … He trafficked a 14-year-old girl, started in California, brought her over to what we call ... a prostitution track in Las Vegas, and through force, through fraud, through coercion, this particular victim was trafficked. She testified in trial to a rape that one of her johns committed against her and then a subsequent beating by the defendant for his conduct. The court sentenced him to 25 years. 

Q: There’s a huge crowd at this human trafficking seminar. It seems there is a lot of interest in this topic and resources from the federal government, which has produced posters raising awareness about sex and labor trafficking. Why do you think it’s become a growing priority for law enforcement?

A: With respect to resources, in 2017 the department issued $47 million in grants. You have the DHS Blue Campaign that is out there and it should be required reading for everybody in the service industry to make sure that if you see something, say something. It has signs and indications and factors that people should look out for for trafficking victims. With respect to why trafficking is so important, it’s modern day slavery … Despite the fact that these investigations and cases are hard to build, the Department of Justice considers it a priority and is dedicating resources to it throughout the country, not just in Nevada. 

Q: Why is it so hard to build these cases?

A: The reason it's so hard is the control that these traffickers have. The victims, if you talk to survivors of human trafficking, they'll tell you that not only are they scared of their trafficker because of the force and coercion used by that trafficker, but they also are recruited into the life through words of love and manipulation, making the way that the traffickers and victims interact very complicated. … It's a tool that traffickers use — to build their relationship with the victims to further insulate them from prosecution. 

Q: Do you believe there's any nexus between legal prostitution and Nevada brothels and sex trafficking?

A: What I'll say is the Department of Justice is going to attack and combat human trafficking wherever it is. And that's true throughout the state — Vegas, Washoe County, and in the rurals. 

Q: Can you say anything about whether there are any open investigations going on related to Dennis Hof, the former brothel owner and Assembly candidate who was accused of sexual misconduct by former employees and died last October?

A: I can't confirm or deny any ongoing or potential investigation. I appreciate the question, but I just can't go into that.

Q: What are your priorities related to marijuana? Should we expect any sort of a crackdown?

A: I do believe that there's a nexus between drug use and crime statistics. Obviously Nevada's not a safer place with just drugs generally available on every street corner. When it comes to my priorities, I'm focused on drugs that are killing people. Drugs like heroin, drugs like fentanyl, opioids, drugs like methamphetamines. Those are my priorities and we've been extraordinarily successful in the last few years focusing on those particular priorities. I believe no less than 12 medical professionals have been indicted and or sentenced since August 2017 by the US attorney's office when it comes to over-prescription and illicit prescriptions of opioids. I think that's where I'm gonna go.

Q: It appears the trend line for opioid deaths is starting to turn downward after decades of increases. Are you seeing that in Nevada?

A: There's certainly been a surge of resources, public awareness, investigatory resources at the state and local and federal level. I think you're right that we are making a difference and the statistics bear that out. That said, talk to the Yenick family, talk to the Nadler family in Las Vegas. The truth is one victim of an overdose by a doctor that's illegally prescribing to an addict is one death too many. Our office has a dedicated prosecutor on these cases, north and south. We're still investigating cases and we're still going to vigorously prosecute them because not only does it send a general deterrence [message] to medical professionals thinking that this is the path that they will follow, but it also sends a message to victims both past, present and future that the department is not taking its eye off the ball on this issue. 

Q: To what do you attribute this trend taking a turn?

A: We're making a difference in combating it because the issue has the attention of everyone. It has the attention of public officials at the local level, at the state level, and at the federal level, and that because of that attention, we've been able to raise public awareness. You also have nongovernmental agencies that are engaged in prevention. The Boys and Girls Club, various programs at the state level, they're all engaged in raising awareness to make sure that adolescents don't get hooked on these drugs and if they're prescribed them, lawfully know the dangers of addiction. So I think all of that has come together to sort of make a difference in this state and in the nation, though our fight is not over. I want to be clear about that. 

Q: The state has said it has no evidence of diversion, in which legal marijuana is illegally crossing state lines. Do you believe there has been diversion?

A: I look at facts, not based on my belief, and I'm aware of a public audit of the marijuana industry. We're monitoring that and looking at that, obviously, and so I hope that the regulatory scheme improves.

Q: When former Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson pleaded guilty in March to misusing campaign funds, there was a statement made at a press conference by an IRS special agent in charge suggesting you were overseeing more than one public corruption case. Should we expect more shoes to drop as it relates to public officials?

A: I can't confirm or deny any ongoing investigation, you know that. But what I'll say is that public corruption is a priority area for the Department of Justice. Obviously, constituents need to have faith that their elected officials are doing right by the communities that they serve. The good news in Nevada is vast, vast majority of public officials are doing just that — serving with integrity, honesty, and humility. And I won't go further than that with respect to any other statements made by me or leadership in federal agencies.

Democrats introduce last-minute campaign finance reform bill

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro has introduced a last-minute bill that would tighten up the state’s campaign finance laws and require large donors to report contributions to the secretary of state.

SB557, which was introduced into the Senate late Saturday, marks a push by Cannizzaro and other legislative Democrats to improve the state’s campaign finance laws after former Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson resigned in disgrace amid a federal investigation into his use of campaign funds. All 13 Senate Democrats signed on as co-sponsors to the bill.

Most notably, the bill would require any organization — such as a business, labor union, corporation or political action committee — that contributes more than $10,000 in a calendar year to file an annual report with the secretary of state’s office detailing each contribution made in excess of $100 and the cumulative total of contributions under $100.

The legislation would also prohibit candidates from spending campaign contributions to pay themselves a salary and adds clarification to the current legislative prohibition on using campaign funds for personal use. The bill defines “personal use” as any expense that would exist irrespective of a candidate’s campaign or a public officer’s duties.

Atkinson announced in March that he would resign from the Legislature and would be pleading guilty to federal charges of misappropriation of campaign funds for personal use earlier this year. In a plea agreement, Atkinson admitted to using nearly half a million dollars from his campaign account for personal use, including to open a downtown bar and to partially pay for the lease on a Jaguar.

A similar concept to Cannizzaro’s bill was introduced earlier this session by Republican Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer in the form of SB333, which would have implemented similar reporting requirements for donors, including individuals and organizations, who gave in excess to $1,000. That bill died without ever being scheduled for a hearing.

SB557 was referred to the Senate Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections. If passed, it would become effective in 2020.

Cannizzaro to introduce last-minute campaign finance transparency bill

With under two weeks to go in the Legislature, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro is requesting an emergency bill related to improving the state’s campaign finance transparency.

Cannizzaro, who submitted the bill draft request on May 15, said in a brief interview that the bill would address transparency in campaign finance, but declined to give specific details on what the bill might entail or when it might be introduced.

“We have been having an ongoing discussion working with (Legislative Counsel Bureau) to try and find where maybe there may need to be some additional beefing up, if you will, of those statutes,” she said. “We’re hoping to come up with something that I think is going to make it a little more transparent for voters.”

Addressing the state’s campaign finance structure became a flashpoint early in the session when former Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson suddenly resigned and pleaded guilty amid charges that he siphoned off close to half a million dollars in campaign funds for personal expenses, including credit card expenses and opening a Las Vegas nightclub. Cannizzaro replaced Atkinson as Democratic leader.

But legislative Democrats have not yet held a hearing on any measure that would directly address the state’s campaign finance law, including Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer’s SB333 which would have required major donors register with the secretary of state. The bill died without receiving a hearing.

Cannizzaro said she couldn’t commit to when the bill might be introduced over the remaining 13 days of the legislative session, but said it likely wouldn’t copy over the concept from Settlemeyer’s bill.

“I don’t know if I’m of the opinion that individual reporting is the direction we should go to keep elected officials accountable,” she said. “We’re still looking at all of the different options to see how that might work.”

Under legislative rules, the Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader are allowed to request 10 “emergency” bills during the 120-day session. The campaign finance bill is Cannizzaro’s first emergency request this session.