Blockchains CEO discusses lobbying effort for new city, company funding, efforts to acquire water in rural Nevada, claims about technology

Blockchains LLC CEO Jeff Berns, who wants to build a new city in Northern Nevada, has hired an array of high-profile and high-powered consultants, some of them connected to Gov. Steve Sisolak, to push his plan through the Legislature. But he has rarely discussed his plans publicly.

In a lengthy interview on the IndyMatters podcast Tuesday, Berns offered insight into the company’s plans, its balance sheet and his relationship with the governor. Berns conceded that there were many uncertainties about the plan and “hundreds of things that could go wrong,” but he believes there is a huge upside for a state economy pounded by the pandemic. 

Berns, who says he developed a friendship with Sisolak and got the governor to embrace his plan, chafed at the idea that he is proposing a company town and insisted he needed legislation to bypass Storey County, which opposed a development on the scale that he is proposing.

“Now we’re saying to the state: ‘Look, the county doesn’t really want us to do this,'” Berns said. “This is the impact on our whole state of what we’re attempting to do. Yes, there are hundreds of things that can go wrong. But if it goes right, think of what it could mean for the state.”

With Sisolak’s endorsement, Blockchains is asking lawmakers to establish new laws that would allow wealthy developers with an innovative technology and large land holdings to break away from existing counties and create a new local government, known as an “Innovation Zone.”

Blockchains, which controls about 67,000 acres of land outside of Reno and recently purchased water rights, wants to build a technology park and new city along the Truckee River that would incubate blockchain technology, which offers a decentralized form of information storage that experts say is more secure and could give individuals more authority over their data. 

But there are many questions about how the company would build this new smart city of about 36,000 residents and what oversight the project would have. Where will the water come from? How will the land be developed? And who would have access to the new tech community? 

A “friendship” with Sisolak and a pitch

Berns said he developed a “friendship” with Sisolak after meeting with him to talk about issues related to the overpopulation of wild horses, which roam the property that Blockchains owns.

“So a couple of years ago, right after our governor was elected, I got my way in to see him and talk to him about the wild horses, and we have developed a friendship since,” Berns said. 

Berns, who purchased the land in 2018, said he also met with Sisolak and other gubernatorial candidates during the election. Berns made substantial donations to Sisolak’s 2018 campaign. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Sisolak approached Berns to serve on a committee that was handling issues related to personal protective equipment. But Berns said he declined that offer.

In the interview, Berns recounted telling the governor the following: “I’m of no use to you on that committee. Let me work on a concept that I think might be something that will drive additional revenue to the state, because when we come out of this, that’s going to be the focus.”

After that discussion, he started to develop the concept that is now before the Legislature. 

“Around Labor Day, I presented [the idea] to him,” Berns recalled, “and then he made the decision of whether or not it was something that he felt was worthy of his stamp of approval.”

About four months later, Sisolak would include the concept as a major economic development strategy in his State of the State speech, and the governor’s office is sponsoring the legislation.

A spokesperson for Sisolak did not reply to an emailed request for comment.

Evaluating the company’s finances

Sisolak’s proposal to allow Blockchains to create an Innovation Zone is premised on the idea that the company will invest an initial $250 million in land and infrastructure with a promise to spend at least $1 billion over 10 years. Berns said Blockchains is prepared to invest. But the company’s business model remains unclear. To date, Berns said he has funded the company. 

“We have not made any money, and we have not actually figured out where we will extract fees,” he said, though he alluded to products allowing people to control their digital identity. 

The company plans to release products next year, Berns said.

Until Blockchains starts building out the Innovation Zone technology park, Berns said he plans to continue funding the business. But he acknowledged that private investment would eventually be necessary to fully build out the technology park, what he estimates will cost about $10 billion. 

When asked how the company planned to recoup its upfront costs and whether they would be passed down to end-users, Berns offered only vague details about his plans for monetization. 

“If you’re going to be using our vaults to store your information, will there be a fee for that? We’ll figure all of those parts out of it as we go. We don’t know yet,” Berns said. “But when we build out the park, you’re talking about over $10 billion. That is certainly not something Blockchains will do. We will raise private money to build it out. But there won’t be public money.”

Berns talks about vaults the company purchased in the company’s “Global Event Launch Keynote” in 2018. These vaults will store digital backup keys to access digital assets. Two vaults the company purchased are in Wyoming and Georgia. There are also two international vaults in Sweden and Switzerland. According to what Berns said during the keynote, these vaults are nuclear bomb resistant and resistant to electromagnetic pulses.

Investors have contacted the company since 2018, Berns said. 

Berns noted that the company’s land is considered an “opportunity zone,” a federal designation that offers a tax break to wealthy investors who develop in economically-distressed areas. The decision to give the land special tax status in 2018 came under scrutiny. Nevada politicians and lobbyists pushed for designating the area, despite nearby areas having lower income brackets.

The designation, Berns said, “offers some very unique abilities to raise money.” He also cited the state’s nascent infrastructure bank as a source for potential private or pension investment. Berns said another possibility was using blockchains technology to help fund buildings. 

“I don’t know yet how we’re going to raise money,” he said. “I haven’t gotten that far.”

Looking for water in six different places

To build out a new city with about 36,000 people, Blockchains will need water. The company has water rights through an existing water district within Storey County, but that water district does not serve the area of land where Blockchains has said it plans to build a residential community. 

As The Nevada Independent first reported in February, the company is looking to import water from rural areas. Not long after Berns pitched the concept to Sisolak, the company closed on a more than $30 million deal to purchase water from the area around Gerlach, a small town that sits at the edge of the Black Rock Desert, where the Burning Man festival is hosted each year.

When developers proposed a pipeline to move that water in the 2000s, environmental groups, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and local, state and federal entities filed legal protests. At the time, the tribe told state officials that exporting the water could harm Pyramid Lake, hindering decadeslong restoration efforts after water was diverted from tribal land in the early-1900s.

In February, a lawyer for the tribe said the tribe is watching the “water rights very closely.” Berns has not yet consulted with the tribe. He said it was a “bit premature” to engage with water users.

Berns believed he could find a “win-win” solution, but indicated that he would respect the tribe’s sovereignty, saying that “if the answer is the door is closed, there’s nothing we can do.” 

“But if the answer is, ‘look, we all have issues with water,’ let’s look at the ways in which maybe we can all work together to not just solve our issue, but to solve your issue and your issue and try to find that win-win. That’s my approach with everything,” he said. “That’s what I hope to do here.”

Berns said he recognized the environmental and economic concerns of piping water from rural Nevada, and he said that “we’re not going to do something that is going to hurt the rural counties,” but he provided few specifics. Berns said the company is investigating water in six different places in multiple counties, but he would not disclose the exact locations. 

“I can just tell you that we know that water is an issue in all Western states,” he said. “We know it’s a serious issue. Stakeholders have very serious, legitimate concerns. And the hope would be that we can get together and figure out a way that takes into accounts all of these concerns.”

Having moved from California, Berns called the water issues a “harsh learning experience.”

Top consultants and a full-court press

In working toward obtaining and entitling the water a city would need, Berns said the company hired Jason King, a former top water regulator. Berns described King, who retired as the State Engineer in 2019, as “the best person” the company could hire “to figure all of this out.”

Since the company first purchased land in 2018, Blockchains has contracted with top lobbying firms and economic consultants across the state. At one point in the interview, Berns said the company “hired the best people in Nevada to do an economic impact analysis on what it would mean to the state,” referring to the Innovation Zone concept and Blockchains concept. 

Berns identified the company’s economic consultant as Jeremy Aguero, a principal analyst with Applied Analysis. Aguero presented the Innovation Zone concept at a panel that Sisolak hosted. Berns also said Guy Hobbs, managing director of Hobbs, Ong & Associates, helped conduct an economic analysis. Kathy Ong Sisolak is listed as a director and the co-founder of the firm.

In the Legislature, the company is deploying a full-court press strategy to convince Democratic and Republican lawmakers to support the proposed bill. Blockchains has hired R&R Partners, a political powerhouse, to lobby lawmakers. In addition to launching a fact-page for the Innovation Zone plan, the campaign sent a video pitch to lawmakers and purchased ad time in Las Vegas.

Despite these efforts, Berns downplayed the idea that the proposed legislation was a big ask.

“All we’re saying is give us a chance to prove this out,” Berns said. 

The company, he noted, is not asking for money and is working to absorb risks. Once the new government structure is established, Berns said that it would operate similar to other counties.

Storey County said no. Will the state say yes?

Last week, Storey County voted to oppose the proposed legislation because of the concerns associated with carving up the county and establishing “separatist governing control.” Many have asked: Why can’t Blockchains develop on its land within the current county structure?

Storey County’s entire population is about 4,000 people. The company’s development proposal involves building about 15,000 dwelling units and establishing a city of about 36,000 residents. When Berns pitched the idea to the county, he said officials did not want to grow to that scale. 

With the proposed development, Berns said the company would be “forcing a change on them, on who their leadership is, on how their government runs, on how everything is structured. And they indicated two years [ago], they had no interest in letting us do that… The max amount of houses that they would authorize would be 3,500 houses, which effectively means you cannot build what we are doing because you need to have that many residents to make this work.”

Apart from the homebuilding and zoning issues, he said other aspects of the proposal — like collecting sales tax instantly, direct democracy through blockchains technology or mandating a higher minimum wage — would not be feasible under Storey County’s government structure.

“This is for people that they don’t even represent yet because they don’t live there,” he said.

Large-scale developers are often frustrated with a county’s decision on zoning or how private land can be entitled. With the county rejecting a full build-out of Blockchains LLC’s development, the company asked the state to endorse creating a new type of local government, Berns said. 

Berns said he approached state officials because the company’s plans, if successful, could have a significant fiscal impact on the state. With plans to launch a digital currency tied to the dollar, Blockchains said it would charge a micro-fee on transactions that could generate revenue.

“Now we’re saying to the state: ‘Look, the county doesn’t really want us to do this,” Berns said. “‘This is the impact on our whole state of what we’re attempting to do. Yes, there are hundreds of things that can go wrong. But if it goes right, think of what it could mean for the state.’”

A company town?

Because of the company’s involvement in lobbying for the Innovation Zones and the set-up of the new local government, critics have said Sisolak’s proposal would allow for the creation of new company towns. Last week, late-night host Stephen Colbert did a segment on the proposal, comparing it to feudalism. Berns, a fan of Colbert, said the company’s goal is to do the opposite.

“It’s using technology to take away the power from the tech companies,” he said. “The narrative out there isn’t the narrative that should exist with the legislation. As soon as the bill comes out, and the governor gets out there and all of those kinds of things, I think that narrative will change.”

Throughout the interview, Berns emphasized the decentralizing features of blockchains and its potential to break up big tech and businesses that have a stranglehold over individual privacy and data. A main feature of blockchains, he said, is that it allows businesses to have more control over their data. Berns described it as the “most anti-Big Tech thing there is.”

“This isn't a company town,” Berns said. “We already own the land. We already could build the city. There's nobody living there. Once there are people living there, [the residents] take control.”

Once the city is populated, there will be elections. For now, Berns said the company is asking this: “please replace the three county supervisors that oversee us, because they are responsible to the voters, with three people that the state will [appoint] to oversee the development.”

The plan, Berns said, is that multiple companies would move into the Innovation Zone. 

“The goal is to show how this technology could allow the community to have control,” he said.

When asked about housing affordability and distributing the land, Berns said that the goal is to lease, rather than sell the land Blockchains owns. Berns said the community would control what happens on the land, but provided few details. He said his concept is “not ready to roll out yet.” 

The technology and international interest 

Throughout the interview, Berns offered vague sketches of how the city might operate and how it would test Blockchains technology. He emphasized the opportunities that come from starting from scratch — that it could change the way infrastructure is built and decisions are made.

“My vision for this is a place where people can come to create,” he said. “In innovating new ideas, you are failing. That’s just the nature of innovation. We have failed probably 50 times already on what we’re trying to develop. So I want to create a place where that’s OK.”

The goal with the Innovation Zone is to create a place to develop new blockchain technology. 

Berns said his vision for the city is “to incubate these different ideas like using blockchains as the foundation for transparency, for payment, for all the ministerial things that companies don’t trust each other with, and then create this place where people can live, work, play, vote — do everything they do in their normal communities — but testing out all of these new technologies.”

Exactly what that technology would look like and what companies are interested in coming to the park remains an open question. Berns said he had nondisclosure agreements with some companies and he could not disclose details, but he added that “we have interest from some very large multinational companies that have indicated they’re interested in projects out here.”

Berns said countries and cities have reached out to the company about working on projects. One country, Berns said, is the Republic of Korea, but he declined to provide other examples.

When asked about how Blockchains planned to market its technology, Berns said that it is not a primary focus for him right now as he concentrates on getting the proposed legislation passed.

“We need to get the legislation passed to see if we’re going to be able to build a smart city,” he said. “And that’s really all I’m focusing on — is trying to answer the legislators’ questions and make sure that I’m out there explaining what we’re trying to accomplish.”

“This is not Big Tech trying to take over the world,” he added. “This is not a separatist who wants to destroy the government. This is me saying there is a technology out there that would allow for us to shift the paradigm and empower the individual, and I want to try to create that here.”

Like the coronavirus itself, much remains unknown about its effect on health care system, tourism sector

A little more than a week ago, a who’s-who of Nevada leaders — the governor, attorney general, state superintendent and health officials from across the state — packed a government building lobby in downtown Las Vegas.

They came to display a unified front as Nevada braced for what seemed inevitable: a coronavirus case within the Silver State’s borders. Gov. Steve Sisolak even demonstrated the proper technique for coughing or sneezing into an elbow.

“We’re going to prepare, not panic,” he said.

Five days later, on Wednesday, Nevada’s first patient tested presumptively positive for COVID-19. Then came a second case in Reno the following day, and the third and fourth cases in Southern and Northern Nevada on Sunday.

While the state awaits official testing confirmation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a different kind of test has begun playing out in Nevada. The emergence of the upper respiratory disease that has sickened about 100,000 people worldwide and killed more than 3,300 stands to challenge the state’s health-care system, tourism sector and education department to varying degrees. Hospitals are readying for a potential influx of patients. Resorts are installing hand-sanitizer dispensers in high-traffic areas. School districts are canceling student trips and forming contingency plans.

Still, no one knows how widespread the coronavirus will emerge in Nevada or how long it will last, making public health and economic predictions difficult, if not, impossible. Other tragedies that either directly or indirectly affected Nevada, such as 9/11, the October 1 mass shooting and natural disasters, had more clear-cut beginning and end points, at least in terms of the event itself.

“The challenge with this one is the event is either A) happening, or, B) still ahead of us,” said Billy Vassiliadis, chief executive officer of R&R Partners, the ad agency that produces marketing campaigns for Las Vegas.

Sisolak at coronavirus press conference
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak demonstrates how to cover while sneezing during a news conference about coronavirus preparations on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Planning for patient influx

When the United States’ first case of the novel coronavirus was confirmed Jan. 21 in a 35-year-old Washington man who had recently traveled to the center of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, it was only a matter of time before it was Nevada’s turn. True, there was only one airline, Hainan Airlines, that flew direct to China before suspending flights earlier this year. But with more than 50 million people flying through McCarran International Airport last year, the odds were never in Las Vegas’ favor.

So some considered it a small mercy that the first case of the novel coronavirus in the state wasn’t confirmed until Wednesday, in a Clark County man in his 50s who had known travel history to Washington, a locus for the virus’s outbreak in the U.S., and Texas, which also has many confirmed cases. 

“Every day that we don’t have a confirmed case just gives us one more day to take a deep breath and plan,” said John Packham, an associate dean at the University of Nevada, Reno, School of Medicine.

But the timing of the first diagnosis was also a byproduct of another mathematical reality. Labs in the state had only run 14 tests for COVID-19, which all came back negative, as of Tuesday evening. With a limited number of tests available, only a select number of patients, generally those with cough, fever and shortness of breath who recently traveled to a known affected region, have been tested for coronavirus in the state.

Where South Korea has gone so far as to offer voluntary drive-through coronavirus testing and identified thousands of patients with the virus, a botched test distributed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has meant the U.S. has tested relatively few people. In the state of Washington, researchers have determined the coronavirus has been likely circulating for weeks based on DNA evidence.

“It’s very likely that there is already community transmission here that we don’t know about,” said Dr. Kevin Murphy, an infectious disease specialist in Reno. “And that’s in part because we haven’t been able to ramp up our testing rapidly enough.”

So far, officials with the Southern Nevada and Washoe County health districts have said there is no evidence of community transmission. At least three of the four patients who have tested presumptively positive for the disease are thought to have acquired it elsewhere — the Clark County man during his travels to one of two states, a man in Northern Nevada who was a recent passenger on the Grand Princess cruise ship linked to several cases of the virus, and a second Washoe County man in Santa Clara, Calif.

The Clark County man, a veteran who was identified through the Southern Nevada VA Health System, is in "serious condition," health officials said this week, while the Northern Nevada men are recovering from the virus in self-isolation at home. No further details were immediately available on Sunday about the fourth case in Clark County.

With the first four presumptively positive patients identified in the state, public health officials and doctors are continuing to prepare for additional cases to surface. On Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services said local health officials were monitoring a total of 40 residents who had recently traveled aboard the Grand Princess, and Washoe County Health District officials tested kids at Huffaker Elementary School in Reno, attended by family members of the Northern Nevada man and where there has been a recent uptick in influenza-like symptoms among students. All the tests for kids at Huffaker came back negative for COVID-19, officials said Friday night.

“It’s a virus, and it’s going to spread all over the world,” said Dr. Dale Carrison, the former head of emergency at UMC and now an emergency room physician at Carson Tahoe Health. “There’s nothing anyone can do about it. It's a virus. It spreads.”

The Southern Nevada Health District main facility as seen in Las Vegas on Friday, March 6, 2020. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

While Nevada is known for having some of the worst health care in the nation, health officials here aren’t too worried about the state’s ability to handle an influx of cases. Carrison, who at one point chaired the Nevada Commission on Homeland Security, noted the networks that exist between hospitals to support each other in the event of a crisis, public health or otherwise.

“You look at our statistics and say our medical care is bad, but you couldn’t have had a more cooperative group of hospitals and people in the community on this earth,” he said.

But if 500 people get sick in Las Vegas at the same time?

“Well, that’s a problem,” Carrison said. “But guess what? That’s a problem in every city of the United States of America.”

The biggest pressure point experts see here is in hospital emergency rooms, which are already overcrowded. They worry that an influx of coronavirus patients needing hospitalization — coupled with only minorly ill patients or those who may worry they have contracted the disease flooding emergency rooms — could put intense stress on the system.

“My biggest concern is hospitals really both north and south that are already operating at capacity,” said Packham, who also chairs the Patient Protection Commission. “They already have disruption with just seasonal influenza, much less trying to think about how they’re going to deal with or isolate patients that have tested positive and so forth in their current operations.”

That’s why health officials are spending so much time educating the public about the symptoms of the disease — typically cough and fever — and urging people to stay home, don’t go to school or work, isolate themselves from others and treat their symptoms with over-the-counter medications. For those who do require medical attention, doctors advise calling ahead so as to not unnecessarily expose health care workers on the frontline of fighting the coronavirus.

“What we are trying to do is make sure that we’re preserving our workforce so we’re not having self-inflicted wounds on the front end,” said Washoe County District Health Officer Kevin Dick. “Then we will be working to have individuals if they are tested positive for COVID and they can isolate at home and don’t need hospitalization, our plan is to do that rather than to drive people toward the hospitals, and we would try to preserve their capacity for dealing with the more severe.”

And while Nevada does suffer from a physician shortage — the state ranks 48th in the nation for active patient care physicians per capita — experts say there isn’t much to be done about that right now.

“We have whatever we have. We’re not going to increase the number of physicians in Nevada in time to make any difference,” Murphy said. “We have to deal with what we’ve got.”

It’s not just doctors either. SEIU Local 1107, which represents 9,000 nurses and hospital workers throughout the state, is scheduling meetings with hospital administrators to discuss their preparedness plans for coronavirus.

“We’re going to bring our members, representatives, to make sure that the plan is something that is okay because the members, the nurses and the ancillary staff, they will know more what are the things that needs to be done in terms of how to be safe,” said Grace Vergara-Mactal, the union’s executive director. “We want to make sure that we are part of that preparedness plan and not just them creating it and just giving us a piece of paper.”

There’s also a concern that patients who need to be tested for COVID-19 won’t want to, for fear of the cost. To that end, the governor adopted an emergency regulation on Thursday barring state-regulated health from billing patients for visits to provider offices, urgent care centers or emergency rooms to be tested for the coronavirus.

“Countries like South Korean, Japan and even China where those cost considerations are not being weighed before you get medical treatment are not getting in the way like they will here,” Packham said. “There will always be an element of that.”

The bad news is that the coronavirus appears to be highly transmissible and the World Health Organization has pegged the global fatality rate at 3.4 percent. The good news is that experts predict that the fatality rate will likely decrease over time because the milder cases, including those with few to no symptoms, are probably going undiagnosed — particularly in the U.S., where testing has been limited.

“What proportion of people with this virus never get sick, just get immune — that may be a large percentage,” Murphy said. “We know of those who get sick, 80 percent have mild disease, but that may just be the tip of the iceberg. There may be a much larger portion of infected persons who never get sick.”

In the meantime, experts are reminding people to wash their hands, clean frequently touched surfaces, avoid shaking hands with others and stay home from school and work if symptomatic. Not only are they good measures for preventing the coronavirus, they said, but also the seasonal flu, which has already claimed 35 lives in Clark County this season. 

“A lot of sick people come in, retirees, they fly all over the world,” Carrison said. “I just have to do the things that I know work — wash your hands and if you’re sick, don’t go to work.”

“I think I’ve had a flu-like illness once in the last three to five years and all I do is see sick patients,” Carrison added. “I’m certainly not superman.”

Southwest Airlines flight departs McCarran International Airport on Tuesday, May 2, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The tourism factor

The outbreak of the coronavirus in China served as a cautionary economic tale for Nevada from the get-go. Casinos in Macau closed for an unprecedented 15 days, tanking revenue in the process.

Bloomberg reported gaming revenue down by about 88 percent in February from last year, a slump that could hurt major Las Vegas companies in the first quarter given their Macau presence. Major Strip casino operators — Caesars Entertainment, Las Vegas Sands, MGM Resorts and Wynn Resorts — all discussed the potential impacts of the coronavirus in annual report filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. 

In an annual filing dated Feb. 7, Las Vegas Sands reported that its Singapore and Las Vegas operations could also be “adversely impacted” if travel restrictions stay in place “or the global response to contain the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus escalates or is unsuccessful.”

Citing similar restrictions in Macau, MGM Resorts also predicted it could “see material declines in MGM China’s operating results during the first quarter of 2020 and potentially thereafter.”

“Additionally, to the extent that the virus impacts the willingness or ability of customers to travel to our properties in the United States (due to travel restrictions, or otherwise), our domestic results of operations could also be negatively impacted,” MGM Resorts said in its Feb. 27 filing.

Some properties have taken steps to address the coronavirus with employees and guests.

A spokesperson for Wynn Resorts, which also noted the coronavirus in a February federal filing, referred The Nevada Independent to a website it created with information about the virus. The website says the gaming company is consulting with a public health expert from Georgetown University Medical Center, mandating a stay-at-home policy for workers and sanitizing door knobs, elevator buttons, handrails and other touchpoints at an increased frequency.

“Just like you, we are closely monitoring new developments regarding the coronavirus, and we are taking every proactive step to make Wynn a haven in these uncertain times,” the site says.

On Friday, MGM Resorts also released a statement saying that although the risk to the broader public remains low, it “implemented temporary enhanced cleaning procedures and protocols.”

Those measures include placing hand sanitizer stations in heavily-trafficked areas, increasing disinfecting procedures and providing information to guests and employees about prevention.

What the industry can’t control, however, is actual visitation. Several high-profile organizations have canceled upcoming meetings, conferences or conventions in Las Vegas. A special summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, planned for mid-March, was canceled. Organizers of the 2020 NXT Global Summit, which focuses on the future of how people live and work, also canceled the mid-July event.

“Although our event is still a few months away, it is clear that our sponsor and exhibitor partners, as well as ticket holders, are making the choice to forego any and all large-scale events for the foreseeable future and it is simply not tenable for us to launch our event in this climate,” the organizers said in a statement posted to their website. ”Therefore, in keeping the health and wellbeing of our attendees as well as our own team in mind, we have decided we will cancel the 2020 NXT Global Summit and continue planning for our expanded 2021 event.”

At least two other conferences — Adobe Summit and Magento Imagine and Atmosphere 2020 — canceled their in-person gatherings in Las Vegas and, instead, announced virtual events.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority hasn’t released a full list of cancellations, saying it could only speak for events happening at the Las Vegas Convention Center, not ones occurring at individual casino-resort properties. But announcements by event organizers indicate that cancellations or postponements haven’t become a sweeping standard within the industry.

A major construction trade show known as CONEXPO-CON/AGG is proceeding with its March 10-14 event. The organization’s website encourages attendees and exhibitors to stay home if sick but also notes 18,000 new people have registered since Feb. 21.

ASD Market Week, the nation’s largest consumer merchandise trade show that meets twice a year in Las Vegas, is doing the same. Organizers weighed the current health circumstances with the long-term economic consequences for the many small- to medium-sized businesses that rely on attending the March 22-25 event. 

“It’s a really fine line, and it’s a really difficult decision, but we’ve made the decision to proceed ahead,” said Lori Silva, executive vice president of retail for Emerald, which organizes ASD Market Week. “We feel like we are doing everything we can to ensure the safety of everybody.”

But she noted that decision is subject to change if the coronavirus situation worsens in Las Vegas.

“If there was a massive cluster going on, yes, we’d have to take a step back and revisit whether that balance of short-term safety and long-term economic safeties is still right,” she said.

Likewise, the Republican Jewish Coalition has not scrapped its annual leadership meeting, including an address from President Donald Trump, planned for mid-March in Las Vegas.

Matt Brooks, the coalition’s executive director, said the decision heeds the Trump administration’s advice to go about normal routines while following basic hygiene prevention methods.

“We are giving all of our attendees a little bottle of Purell,” he added.

A shelf that normally holds toilet paper sits nearly empty inside a Target store in Henderson on Friday, March 6, 2020. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

The proceed-as-normal mindset appears to be prevailing in the sports world as well — at least for now.

The NFL did not respond to an emailed request for comment, but a league spokesperson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal Thursday that the NFL had made no plans to cancel the draft. That follows an announcement the league made Tuesday that, while it continues to monitor developments, was making no plans to cancel the draft or any other offseason events. 

The Raiders also did not respond to a request for comment, though a statement provided to The Nevada Independent from the Vegas Golden Knights hockey team — which routinely draws more than 18,000 fans to home games — said the organization plans to continue normal operations. 

“We are closely monitoring the situation while following recommendations and guidance from the CDC and NHL. At this time, we are continuing our normal operations,” the statement said. “We advise our fans, program participants and staff to continue employing the same precautions they do during cold and flu season, encourage them to stay home if they feel sick and frequently wash hands thoroughly as they would do to avoid any communicable illness."

The NHL released a statement Wednesday that it was continuing to monitor the virus’ spread and draw up contingency plans ahead of the league’s playoffs next month. But the quick spread of the disease in countries such as Italy and Japan has intensified scrutiny of everything from soccer games to the Olympics. 

And in Washington state, where the coronavirus spread has been most acute in the U.S., season ticket sales for a soon-to-come NHL team in Seattle have been postponed amid lingering questions over the virus’ short-term effects.

Even so, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and representatives from the travel, hotel, airline and retail industries tried to assuage consumer fears during a news conference Wednesday.

“Our response has to be grounded in fact and not fear,” Chamber Chief Executive Tom Donohue said. “What we’re telling our members...is the same advice we are following ourselves. Be prudent, be prepared and don’t overreact. We should be guided by the facts and the advice from medical experts and the federal, state and local officials who are dealing with this situation. That largely means business as usual with limited exceptions.”   

The U.S. Travel Association projects international inbound travel to the U.S. will fall 6 percent over the next three months as a result of the coronavirus outbreak and will cost the U.S. economy about $3 billion.

The decline would be the largest in international inbound travel since the 2008 financial crisis.

But Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association, said he expects travel to snap back once the crisis abates.

“There's going to be a short term, a few folks, and I say a few relative to the masses, that will stay away, but it's going to pop up bigger than ever,” Dow said after the Chamber event. “And what happens is that they put off travel, they don't just say ‘I'm not going to do it.’ They say, ‘I'll do it, not this week, but I'll do it next.’ I'd be naive to say there's not going to be a small drop, but it's going to come back pretty fast.”

He also said that Chinese travelers are also starting to come back, which is an important market for places like Las Vegas. Traditionally, about 80 percent of Las Vegas visitors come from within the United States, while foreign tourists make up the other 20 percent.

Ultimately, Las Vegas’ reputation as the “escape capital of the world” may help during this period, Vassiliadis said. Domestic travelers who postpone elongated trips overseas may be more inclined to schedule a shorter getaway to Las Vegas.

 “This is where people come to leave their worries and burdens behind,” he said.

On the Las Vegas Strip, tourists who spoke to The Nevada Independent remained nonplussed — if not a bit more aware of how often they were washing their hands. 

“I’ve been reading about it, but it hasn’t been an issue where I live,” tourist Susanne York said. “Other than when my husband went to Costco to get toilet paper, they were all out.”

Updated March 8, 2020 at 10:45 a.m. to reflect a second case announced in Washoe County.

Updated March 8, 2020 at 2:55 p.m. to reflect a third case in Clark County.

Many former elected officials and public employees have made their way to the marijuana industry

The interior of the Nevada Legislature

Nevada’s system of regulating marijuana was born in the halls of the Legislature. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that many who wander those halls, sit through hours of hearings to develop a regulatory structure and stay current on the latest twists and turns of cannabis law wind up involved in the industry themselves.

Records released through SB32 this spring reveal a number of former lawmakers and lobbyists on the list of owners and board members of marijuana companies. Among them are two who reached speaker, the highest post in the Assembly, but had become lobbyists by the time the Legislature authorized dispensaries.

“The experience that former elected officials, former lawmakers, former bureaucrats have with state agencies and how they operate, I think is helpful in advising and moving things forward in a way that is actually appropriate for our state,” said Democratic former Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, who served in the Legislature from 1992 to 2006.

Nevada shifted from having the Department of Health and Human Services oversee dispensaries to the Department of Taxation in 2017. Understanding the differences between those two agencies was an important skill, he said.

John Oceguera, also a former speaker who left the Legislature after the 2011 session, is a board member with Las Vegas Wellness and Compassion LLC and represented 11 different cannabis companies in the 2019 legislative session. He said he thinks the company sought him out as a board member because of his knowledge in the regulatory arena and his public safety background as a firefighter.

There are also former mayors and council members whose skill sets could be helpful in navigating local government approvals. Municipalities have the power to enact moratoriums and approve local permits for individual businesses, so the fate of a business can sometimes hang on how well its leaders navigate local government politics and processes.

“You want people on your team to help you in the guidance through the rough water, and cannabis is a rough industry,” said Rebecca Gasca, a lobbyist and owner with Wendovera LLC. “So you want to rely on people who know how to get you where you want to go. They have the compass. They’re the compass holders. You’re the boat. And you trust them. And it makes sense because you haven’t been in their shoes.”

Also on the list are at least three people with intimate knowledge of marijuana regulation — one is Deonne Contine, who until February 2018 headed the Department of Taxation that oversees marijuana businesses. Although she is listed as a board member for Sierra Well, she says she was never a bonafide board member and was listed as a potential secretary while working as a private sector lawyer on Sierra Well’s unsuccessful applications for five dispensary licenses in 2018.

Reporting from the Nevada Current suggests there may have been a lapse in communication about Contine’s status that resulted in her name still being on a list that says it’s current through Aug. 1, 2019. She says that had the company won a dispensary license, it would still need to update its records and confirm bona fide board members.

Critics have questioned the propriety of Contine being involved in the industry at all because of her close ties to the regulation-development process. But Contine, who served as head of the Department of Administration in Gov. Steve Sisolak’s cabinet until her abrupt resignation last week, insists that she’s not running afoul of ethics law that calls for a “cooling-off” period for former public employees.

“No. I was working as a lawyer in the private sector and was thinking about issues that were active at the department (in any area) and if there were any conflicts related to my private sector legal work,” she said in an email to The Nevada Independent.

She added that she is no longer interested in working in the private sector and hopes to someday return to the public sector.

“I have spent much of my life dedicated to public service and ultimately realized rather quickly after working as a lawyer in the private sector for a few months that I am more suited to making sure systems and processes run smoothly and my heart is in public service and policy,” she said.

Below are some notable names in the political realm who are leaders in the cannabis industry.

Mynt dispensary in Reno

Mynt dispensary in Reno is seen on Nov. 9, 2019. Photo by Mark Hernandez.

Several former state legislators have a stake in the industry, including David Goldwater, an owner at Inyo Fine Cannabis Dispensary LLC. He is a former Democratic member of the Assembly and now a lobbyist.

Former Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, a Democrat who ran an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2016, is a board member at GreenMart of Nevada.

Then there’s Sandra Tiffany, an owner at GWGA LLC and a former Republican state senator who served 14 years in the Legislature. She’s a businesswoman who established a nuclear medicine image processing company and worked at a large computer-aided design and engineering firm.

One-term Republican Assembly member Scott Sibley, an owner at Nevada Holistic Medicine LLC, is a real estate broker and a reporter with Nevada Legal News, a subscription-based website that publishes news stories, public notices and other public records.

Mark James is an owner with LVMC C&P LLC and LVMC LLC. He served in the Legislature from 1992 to 2002, and on the Clark County Commission from 2003 to 2007. In 1995, James wrote Nevada's "Truth in Sentencing Law," reducing the possibility that prisoners could get early release. He also authored Nevada's "Megan's Law" to notify the community when a sex offender has been released from prison. His time as CEO of Frias cab company was marked by a contentious breach of contract lawsuit. He is now is CEO of Integrity Vehicle Solutions, which developed the Ride Genie app that allows passengers to hail cabs.

Former Assemblyman Chad Christensen, a Republican who served from 2002 to 2010 and ran an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate in 2010, is an owner with Fidelis Holdings. He told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2014 that although he is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which opposes the use of marijuana except for medicinal use, he became a supporter of medical marijuana after seeing his wife’s friend suffer from using prescription painkillers.

Josh Griffin, a former owner with Livfree Wellness LLC who has since left the industry, served as a Republican member of the Assembly in 2003 and is a lobbyist whose clients in the 2019 session included the City of Reno, City of Elko and casino companies MGM Resorts and Eldorado Resorts (casino companies are strictly prohibited from involvement in the marijuana industry). He is the son of Jeff Griffin, who served as Reno’s mayor for eight years.

High-ranking legislative leaders on the rolls include Oceguera, a former owner at Exhale Brands Nevada II LLC and current board member at Las Vegas Wellness and Compassion LLC. He is a lobbyist and the former speaker of the Assembly who ran unsuccessful bids for Congress in 2012 and 2016.

And then there is Perkins, an owner at Nevada Holistic Medicine LLC and Nevada Natural Medicines LLC and the former Speaker of the Assembly. He worked as a police officer starting in 1984 before becoming chief of police in Henderson and retiring in 2008. He is now president and chief lobbyist for The Perkins Company, a firm whose clients include Newmont Mining and the City of Henderson.

Perkins said he’s long supported medicinal marijuana after his stepson battled cancer in the early 1990s. But coming around to support recreational marijuana was a longer evolution. After conversations with narcotics officers, he has come to believe that marijuana is not a gateway drug when it’s brought out of the shadows and isn’t only available through criminal activity.

Family members of political figures include Ross Goodman, an owner with Paradise Wellness Center LLC. He is a criminal defense attorney and the son of Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and former Mayor Oscar Goodman.

Mayor Carolyn Goodman has been known to abstain from marijuana-related policy discussions, such as a debate about cannabis consumption lounges in the city, because of her son’s involvement.

Mynt dispensary in Reno

Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and her husband, former mayor Oscar Goodman, ride in a pink Cadillac during the annual Veterans Day parade in downtown Las Vegas on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

On the other end of the state, Catherine Cashell-Mannikko, daughter of former lieutenant governor and Reno Mayor Bob Cashell, is an owner at Livfree Wellness. She told the Reno Gazette-Journal she got into the business because medical cannabis has helped her daughters, and as an investment opportunity.

John Griffin is a former owner at Livfree Wellness LLC who said in 2014 that his father had relied on medical marijuana to alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Griffin is a lobbyist whose clients include casino companies.

Lori Rogich, a Las Vegas-based attorney, is a former officer with Deep Roots Medical LLC. She is married to Sig Rogich, a Republican political consultant, the founder of prominent advertising and lobbying firm R&R Partners, and a former U.S. ambassador to his native Iceland.

In 2014, the revelation that Sig Rogich was a minority owner in a marijuana company was one of the most surprising that came out of a license application period in Clark County. Rogich was a senior White House adviser to President George H.W. Bush from 1989 to 1992 and also advised President Ronald Reagan, who in 1980 said marijuana “is probably the most dangerous drug in the United States.”

"It was 30 years ago, a lot has changed," Sig Rogich said in 2014.

Former local government figures include Larry Scheffler, an owner at MM Development Company Inc. He is a former councilman for Henderson who founded the commercial printing company Las Vegas Color Graphics, Inc. in 1978. He also has served as a commissioner on six major commissions in Southern Nevada government. 

His business partner Robert Groesbeck, an owner at MM Development Company Inc, served as the mayor for the City of Henderson from 1993 to 1997. He has practiced law for more than 25 years. 

Mynt dispensary in Reno

The Nevada Legislature as seen on June 4, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Lobbyists who have a stake in the industry include John Sande III, an owner at Nuleaf. He’s an attorney at the firm Fennemore Craig, and previously was chairman of First Independent Bank of Nevada. He played football for four years at Stanford.

Legislative observers may remember Rebecca Gasca for her past work as a lobbyist for the ACLU of Nevada. She is now CEO at the lobbying firm Pistil + Stigma, which helps businesses navigate the cannabis regulatory process, and is an owner at Wendovera LLC.

Other lobbyists include Tia Dietz, who works with government affairs firm The Griffin Company and was a registered lobbyist in 2017, and Piper Overstreet-White, who was a lobbyist for Uber in 2018. Both are board members at Livfree Wellness. 

Amy Ayoub, an officer with Deep Roots Medical LLC, is a former political fundraiser and public speaking coach.

Two lobbyists for Barrick Gold are part owners of a marijuana company. Judith “Be-Be” Adams is an owner with HSH Lyon LLC (High Sierra Holistics), as is Sean Gamble, who also lobbies for a coalition of Boys and Girls Clubs.

Serial participants on state boards round out some of the ownership. Luther Mack, an owner at Nevada Wellness Center LLC, was a longtime operator of McDonald’s and Popeyes franchises. Previously, he held positions in several state government agencies, served on the Nevada State Athletic Commission for 13 years, served as the chair of the University of Nevada, Reno Foundation and on the board of Boyd Gaming. 

He said he got into the marijuana world as a business opportunity, but also appreciated the benefits he found when using CBD cream for muscle soreness after workouts, and finds many former athletes are customers at his business.

Tisha Black, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully in 2018 for the Clark County Commission seat held by Justin Jones, is a board member at Clear River LLC. She is a lawyer in Las Vegas, and the founding partner at the Black & Lobello law firm. After years of involvement in the state’s medical marijuana program, developing regulations and helping companies file applications for their marijuana business licenses, she took the helm as president of the Nevada Dispensary Association in 2019. 

Former state employees who are now involved in the industry include Chad Westom, a board member at Forever Green LLC who was previously the bureau chief of the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health until October 2017, according to his LinkedIn profile. As such, he oversaw the state’s medical marijuana program before it was transferred to the Department of Taxation.

On the website for his company, Westom touts that experience to potential clients, saying “built Nevada’s first-ever marijuana regulatory structure from 2013 through 2017, and oversaw the licensing and opening of all of Nevada’s marijuana establishments.”

Lisa Vick, who works as a compliance officer and board member at Clark Natural Medicinal Solutions, notes on her LinkedIn profile that she was an auditor with the Nevada Department of Taxation until February 2018. In that job, she said she would “audit all inventory and procedures for Dispensaries, production, cultivation, and laboratories for medical and recreational marijuana in the State of Nevada.”

Jodie Snyder, Riley Snyder, Michaela Chesin, Taylor Avery, Trey Arline and Zach Murray contributed research to this project.

Biden brings in biggest total from itemized donors in Nevada, Sanders pockets most individual donations

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaking during a campaign event

Democratic presidential hopefuls pocketed more than half a million dollars in itemized contributions from Nevadans in the third quarter of the year as they prepare for a final push ahead of the early nominating contests in February.

Former Vice President Joe Biden raised the largest total sum, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders received the most individual itemized donations, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission last week. Other candidates who raised significant sums from Nevadans include Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

Federal campaign finance reports only list itemized contributions — those that are more than $200 or, when combined with other contributions over the election cycle, exceed $200 — meaning that the analysis does not take into consideration smaller sums that the candidates may have raised from Nevadans. For instance, Sanders’ campaign said that they received more than 30,000 individual donations, both itemized and not, from nearly 10,000 Nevadans, but other campaigns were not able to readily share similar data with The Nevada Independent.

The campaign finance reports hint at the kind of support the campaigns have here on the ground in Nevada, with Biden raising significant sums from well-known casino executives and former elected officials while Sanders and Warren tended to bring in generally smaller amounts from everyday donors. They also reveal how candidates may or may not be gaining traction here: Self-help author Marianne Williamson has been to Nevada eight times since launching her campaign and raised about $15,000 here this quarter, while former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, who has been here 10 times, only raised $2,800.

Some in Nevada also aren’t willing to choose a side yet. The reports show that Democratic donor Stephen Cloobeck donated the maximum $2,800 primary contribution to four candidates — Biden, California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar — and $1,000 to Buttigieg, while former Regent Jill Derby has spread $4,660 among seven Democratic hopefuls.

At the same time, the sums they are raising individually are dwarfed by what President Donald Trump raised in the state in the third quarter — about $320,000 across roughly 5,000 individual donations.

Below, The Nevada Independent takes a look at which corners of the state the candidates are raising the most from and breaks down each individual candidate’s Nevada donations.

Joe Biden

The former vice president brought in the biggest haul of any Democratic presidential hopeful — about $206,000 once refunds were taken into account — from itemized donors in Nevada in the third quarter. He was the fifth top fundraiser overall among the Democratic field this quarter, bringing in $15.7 million in donations.

His list of Nevada donors this quarter includes many of the who’s who in Las Vegas, from gaming executives to members of prominent families, and is largely made up of big money donors, with $191,902 of his total coming from contributions of $1,000 or more.

Two of his biggest contributions came from Bob Boughner, who sits on the board of directors for Boyd Gaming and donated $5,600 to Biden’s campaign, and UNLV President Marta Meana, who contributed $5,000. 

He received the maximum $2,800 contribution to a primary campaign from several notable Nevadans, including MGM Resorts Chief Hospitality Officer Ari Kastrati; Diana Bennet, co-founder of Paragon Gaming, Dr. Larry Lehrner, a nephrologist and husband of former Rep. Shelley Berkley; Marilynn Mack, daughter of the late real estate investor Jerry Mack; Amy Greenspun Arenson, daughter of Las Vegas Sun publisher Brian Greenspun; and Billy Vassiliadis, CEO of R&R Partners.

Other notable contributions: Biden received a $500 sum from Tina Quigley, the head of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, and several installments totaling $500 from former Rep. James Bilbray and his wife, Michaelene Bilbray.

Both Bilbray and Berkley have endorsed Biden in his presidential bid.

In total, Biden received about 570 individual itemized contributions in Nevada.

Bernie Sanders

The Vermont senator raised the second most among the Democratic field in Nevada, about $104,000 after refunds, but had the most individual itemized donations. Still, the 2,900 individual itemized donations Sanders received is eclipsed by the 30,000 total individual donations — including unitemized donations — his campaign says he received in the Silver State.

Sanders was technically the second highest fundraiser this quarter nationally, at $28 million, but only behind billionaire Tom Steyer who spent $47.6 million of his own money on his campaign this quarter for a total of $49.6 million raised. 

There are a lot fewer familiar names on Sanders’ list of Nevada donors, which includes a maintenance worker at Walmart, a bartender at Caesars Palace and a busser at the Cosmopolitan. (It also includes lawyers, nurses, dentists, and teachers, among others.)

His top donations this quarter came from Levi Blaney, an engineer at the tech company Flux7 ($2,000) and investment banker Pranav Merchant ($1,694). He also received nine $1,000 donations from some doctors, a medical social worker and an accountant. One notable donor — health care advocate and former congressional candidate Amy Vilela, who has endorsed Sanders, contributed $1,449.38

Elizabeth Warren

The Massachusetts senator raised far less in itemized contributions from Nevadans than either Biden or Sanders, bringing in a total of about $48,000 in the third quarter over nearly 650 individual donations. She was the third top Democratic fundraiser overall this quarter, raising $24.7 million.

Like Sanders, Warren has sworn off high-dollar fundraisers in exchange for spending more time on the selfie line after her rallies. As such, her list is also filled with many unfamiliar names and small dollar donations.

Her top contributions include $2,500 from Dr. Osama Haikal, a gastroenterologist, $1,500 from a retiree named Carson Miller, and $1,300 from Reno-based MS advocate Vivian Leal. Her top donors also include several UNLV professors, lawyers and consultants. Only five of her donations were sums of $1,000 or more.

Two interesting donors — Assemblywoman Connie Munk, who has not yet endorsed in the race but donated $525 to Warren’s campaign this quarter in small installments, and Clark County Democratic Party Chair Donna West donated $85.03. (Munk also donated $160 to Booker’s campaign.)

Pete Buttigieg

The South Bend Mayor brought in the fourth biggest haul in itemized donations from Nevadans this quarter at about $35,000 after refunds through a little more than 500 individual donations. He received nine $1,000 contributions, including from Cloobeck, a physician assistant, a lawyer and a broadband planner. He also received $500 from Patrick Duffy, president and CEO of Nevada School of the Arts.

He was the fourth top Democratic fundraiser overall, raising $19.2 million over the quarter.

Andrew Yang

This tech entrepreneur who has slowly inched up in the polls over the last few months raised the fifth most in itemized donations from Nevadans, totaling about $27,000 after refunds. Yang’s top contributors include several professional gamblers and poker players, consultants and a cocktail server at the Bellagio.

He raised $9.9 million overall this quarter.

Kamala Harris

The California senator came in just shy of Yang’s total itemized donations in Nevada by $13.70 after accounting for refunds, placing her at the sixth highest for itemized contributions in the state. Like Yang, she also raised just about $27,000, but came out ahead of the tech entrepreneur in total fundraising nationally this quarter at $11.8 million.

Her top donor was Cloobeck, but she received several $1,000 sums including from a nurse, a lawyer and an environmental biologist.

Marianne Williamson

The self-help author, who didn’t qualify for the October debate stage, actually managed to raise the seventh most in itemized donations from Nevadans in the third quarter at about $14,000 after refunds. Her top donor in Nevada was Aileen Getty, a philanthropist and the granddaughter of J. Paul Getty, who donated $2,500 tied to an address at a Reno office park associated with her foundation. Other contributors include two atmospheric scientists, an ecclesiastical assistant and a yoga instructor.

Others who made the debate stage

Several other Democratic hopefuls who raised enough money and scored high enough in the polls to qualify for the October debate stage raised far smaller sums. Klobuchar and Booker each brought in a little north of $10,000, while former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke raised just a little less than that sum.

Two notable Klobuchar donors — Las Vegas Sun publisher Brian Greenspun and his wife, Myra Greenspun, who collectively donated $3,800. His sister-in-law, Robin Greenspun, donated $500 to Booker.

Dan Lee, CEO of Full House Resorts and husband of Rep. Susie Lee, donated $275 to O’Rourke.

Steyer raised a little less than $6,000 in the state, while Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard raised about $4,500 and Castro raised just a little less than $2,800 after refunds.

Bottom of the pack

Two candidates who didn’t qualify for the debate stage outraised Castro, who did. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet raised about $4,800 from just seven donors in the state, while Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan raised about $4,300 — with almost all of that coming from three employees affiliated with singer and songwriter Jewel and her company, Jewel Inc.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock raised about $2,700, while former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak raised about $1,500 and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney raised $290. 

Nevada DMV debuts 'Forever Strong' specialty license plate to benefit Las Vegas Resiliency Center

Flowers lay on the ground near the Route 91 Festival grounds

On the second anniversary of the Route 91 Harvest shooting in Las Vegas, the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles is releasing a “Forever Strong” license plate.

 The specialty license plate will raise funds for the Las Vegas Resiliency Center that continues to assist victims of the tragedy. For every “Forever Strong” license plate purchased, $25 from the initial issue and $20 for renewals will go to the Resiliency Center.

Courtesy Nevada DMV

“Drivers with this license plate send a clear message that they are strong, compassionate and unwavering in their memory of the lives lost,” Tennille Pereira, director of the Vegas Strong Resiliency Center, said in a statement. “I commend Governor Sisolak, Clark County and Nevada legislators who made this specialty plate a reality this past legislative session.”

 The Resiliency Center, which opened on October 23, 2017, has been helping people affected by the mass shooting. Mental health and behavioral resources, as well as legal services, have been offered to those affected.

 The plate features a black and gold heart logo on a gold gradient background that was designed by R&R Partners for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. The world “Nevada” is centered at the top and “Forever Strong” is centered at the bottom of the plate.

 “Our residents can be proud of the strength we showed as a community in response to 1 October and the support we continue to offer victims of the incident through the Vegas Strong Resiliency Center,” Clark County Commission Chairman Marilyn Kirkpatrick said in a statement. “We appreciate the governor and Legislature working with Clark County on this worthwhile effort.”

State lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 333, which created the “Vegas Strong” license plates, during this year’s legislative session.

The specialty plate will cost $62 with standard numbering and $97 for personalized plates, plus standard registration fees. The annual renewal cost will be $30 for standard plates and $50 for personalized plates. 

Follow the Money: Lobbyists gave lawmakers almost $500,000 during 2018 campaign cycle

Nevada Legislature building

During a legislative session in Nevada, one group outnumbers all others. With more than 1,000 registered paid and unpaid lobbyists arriving at some time or another for the 2019 session, Carson City finds itself again with a lobbyist-to-legislator ratio of more than 16 to 1.

And while the vast majority of lobbyists did not contribute to legislative coffers, the 10 percent who did formed the 10th-largest donor group in the state by total donations. Through the 2018 election cycle, nearly 100 lobbying firms or individual lobbyists gave legislators more than $488,000, or roughly 4.5 percent of the $11.7 million contributed to lawmakers in total.

Though no lobbying firm or individual lobbyist spent more than five-figures, much of the money spent was concentrated among the top four donors: Marketing firm R&R Partners ($121,500), law firm Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie ($80,500), law firm Kaempfer & Crowell ($73,250) and the public relations/government affairs firm The Ferraro Group ($38,000).

Together, these four firms spent nearly two-thirds of all the money contributed by lobbyists, all representing dozens of corporate clients with varied interests in the state. Those clients include large companies such as AT&T, NV Energy or health insurer Anthem, in addition to government agencies or private interest groups such as the Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District and the Nevada Mining Association.

Contributions largely flowed to legislative Democrats, who received $349,000 to the Republicans’ $139,000. However, average contributions were nearly identical across the two parties, with the GOP receiving $828 per average donation to the Democrats’ $804, a difference of a little less than 3 percent.

Only three legislators of the 63 received no contributions from lobbyists before a freeze on campaign contributions for the legislative session took effect in January. That group includes appointed Assembly members Rochelle Nguyen and Bea Duran, both Democrats, and Republican Gregory Hafen.

Among the remaining 60 lawmakers, Democratic Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson received the most with $37,298, while former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson ($28,342), Republican Sen. Ben Kieckhefer ($24,400), Democratic Sen. Mo Denis ($20,475) and Republican Sen. Joe Hardy ($18,500) round out the top five.

Comparing total contributions to each legislative chamber, members of the 42-person Assembly received slightly more ($250,783) than members of the Senate ($237,417). Though senators still received much more on average ($945) than their lower-chamber counterparts ($714).

As always, we’ve triple-checked the math. But if anything seems off, feel free to contact us at jacob@thenvindy.com.

Sisolak's 2018 calendar gives detailed view into campaign, county operations

A mix of lobbyist meetings, fundraisers, campaign events and county business dominated Gov.-elect Steve Sisolak’s calendar throughout the first 11 months of 2018, according to a copy obtained by The Nevada Independent.

Sisolak, who defeated Republican Adam Laxalt in the November election and will be sworn in next month as the state’s first Democratic governor in 20 years, kept a packed schedule through most of the year, ranging from meetings with gaming executives, business leaders, top lobbyists and other candidates for office, along with debate prep, campaign events and nearly three dozen fundraisers in addition to his normal county business.

The information was obtained via a records request submitted by The Nevada Independent on Dec. 7 for a copy of the Clark County Commission chair’s calendar from Jan. 1 to the first week in December. Some caveats: just because a meeting was scheduled in the calendar doesn’t necessarily mean it happened, and the calendar isn’t a definitive record of Sisolak’s meetings and activity on the campaign trail.

With hundreds of entries, the calendar provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the relationships and schedule of the man soon to be Nevada’s 30th governor.

Jay Brown

Twenty-seven scheduled meetings, including 17 one-on-one meetings, underline the close relationship between Sisolak and powerhouse local government lobbyist Jay Brown, whose long list of clients includes Resorts World, Republic Services, Treasure Island and a host of marijuana dispensaries.

Two of the meetings were held with longtime Walters Group president Mike Luce in January and August. Another two meetings with Brown were held with developer Don Webb, the Raiders stadium chief operating officer. Brown represented the team in its business before the county commission last year.

Other participants in meetings with Brown and Sisolak included prominent Las Vegas developer Brett Torino on Oct. 10, developer-turned-cannabis company owner Mitch Wilson on Nov. 29 and prominent criminal defense attorney David Chesnoff on Jan. 9.

Brown, a top attorney and former law partner of Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, has close relations with many Southern Nevada power players, including former Sen. Harry Reid and incarcerated gambler Billy Walters. Walters’ wife, Susan, contributed $100,000 to Sisolak’s gubernatorial campaign in the weeks ahead of the 2018 election.

Brown contributed $10,000 to Sisolak’s campaign through his law firm on Oct. 5, and another $10,000 personally on Sept. 1, 2017.

Eglet

In December 2017, Clark County became the first jurisdiction in Nevada to contract with the private law firm of Eglet Prince to pursue litigation against 17 pharmaceutical-grade opioid companies.

Over the next several months, close to a dozen other jurisdictions in the state would also enter into similar contracts with Eglet Prince. During that period, Robert Eglet, the firm’s namesake and senior partner, continued to meet with Sisolak and help his campaign.

Sisolak’s calendar shows meetings with Eglet on Jan. 23, a dinner with him and lawyer/businessman Peter Palivos on Feb. 2, another meeting on May 31 and an Eglet-hosted fundraiser on July 26, the same day Sisolak’s campaign reported receiving more than $107,000 in contributions, including $5,000 from Eglet Prince.

Post election meetings

So far, Sisolak has announced that a handful of Sandoval administration appointees will remain at the helm of executive branch agencies in his administration, and his scheduled meetings since the election suggest he’s considering keeping more in place.

His calendar shows meetings with current Department of Transportation Director Rudy Malfabon on Dec. 4, and a meeting with Paul Anderson, head of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, on Dec. 5. Both meetings were scheduled at Sisolak’s “Transition HQ.”

The incoming governor also met with SEIU leaders Brian Shepherd and Grace Vergara at the transition HQ on Dec. 5. The Clark County Commission approved a 1 percent salary increase for all county employees and a 2 percent Cost of Living Adjustment pay bump for union members at their Dec. 18 meeting.

Peter Palivos

Sisolak’s calendar also shows eight meetings with Las Vegas lawyer and businessman Palivos, a personal friend, between January and June of 2018. Palivos was the seller in a $7 million land deal in 2012 with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, and since then has been a philanthropist and Democratic political donor.

He donated $15,000 to Sisolak’s gubernatorial bid between September 2017 and October 2018, about a quarter of the $57,000 total he has donated to Democratic candidates and causes since 2012.

Before moving to Nevada, Palivos was involved in a dubious real estate deal in Illinois which eventually saw him convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice in 2003 — though Palivos had claimed outside of court that he was framed by prosecutors for refusing to provide evidence against former Illinois Gov. George Ryan.

Other meetings

Sisolak’s calendar is peppered with other meetings with top lobbyists and political insiders.

It shows three scheduled meetings with powerful lobbyist and R&R Partners CEO Billy Vassiliadis in March, April, and a few days after the general election in November, as well as a scheduled meeting at the firm’s office on Nov. 13. The advertising firm represents some of the most powerful entities in the state, including the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Blockchains LLC and the Nevada Resort Association.

Sisolak also met with lobbyist Gary Milliken at least four times, including joint meetings with taxi executive Jonathan Schwartz and Nevada Contractors Association vice president Sean Stewart.

The calendar also shows a scheduled meeting with Station Casino owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta on Oct. 3. Both Feritta brothers and their wives individually contributed $10,000 to Sisolak’s campaign about a week earlier, according to campaign finance records.

He also reported meeting with former Diamond Resorts CEO Stephen Cloobeck on Oct. 21. Cloobeck, who in 2017 weighed a run for governor, contributed $5,000 to Sisolak in August and constantly slammed his Republican opponent, Adam Laxalt, on Twitter prior to the election.

He also met with Wynn Resorts CEO Matt Maddox on Aug. 28, Monarch Casino Resorts CEO John Farahi on Sept. 12 and Switch CEO Rob Roy, also on Sept. 12.

Education support

Meetings recorded on the calendar also underline Sisolak’s close alliance with the Clark County Education Association and its leader, John Vellardita.

In addition to a CCEA podcast recording in late May, Sisolak’s calendar shows a meeting with Velardita on June 27, the same month the union officially split from its parent organization, the Nevada State Education Association. Velardita held a fundraiser for Sisolak on Oct. 24, a day which his campaign reported raising more than $58,000.

CCEA was an early backer of Sisolak in both the primary and general elections, including spending more than $1.3 million on his behalf through 2017 and 2018 through the “Nevada Leads” political action committee, which ran ads attacking primary opponent Chris Giunchigliani and Laxalt.

Although the NSEA spent heavily to back Giunchigliani, Sisolak’s calendar shows meetings with the group on July 19 and a roundtable with the organization on Oct. 12, about a week before the union announced it was endorsing him for governor. He also met with Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara on the same day as the NSEA meeting, July 19.

Political meetings & fundraisers

He also had scheduled meeting with current and former Democratic elected officials over the span of several months, including Sen. Harry Reid, Sen. Richard Bryan, Senate Majority Leader and attorney general candidate Aaron Ford, Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and state party chair and Assemblyman Will McCurdy.

In the heat of campaign season, Sisolak also met with a number of Democratic politicians, candidates and former politicians. That includes several primary fundraisers with state and local politicians, including Rep. Dina Titus on March 27, then-state Senate Assistant Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson on March 27, state Sen. Yvanna Cancela on March 14, and County Commission candidate Tick Segerblom on October 25.

Sisolak’s calendar also shows a scheduled meeting with Segerblom’s primary opponent, labor organizer Marco Hernandez, on March 28 — the same day Sisolak’s “Sandstone PAC” contributed $500 to Hernandez’s campaign.

He also reported meeting with National Popular Vote, a group pushing for states to adopt an agreement to cast electoral votes toward the winner of the popular vote, on July 10. A bill adding Nevada to the compact failed to make it out of committee in 2017.

Whether fundraisers were for Sisolak, another candidate or joint was usually not made explicit in the calendar, though by the general election he had held at least 32 fundraisers exclusively for his own campaign, including at least two after the election in November. Those fundraisers include:

  • 7/18 - Ali Rizvi, CEO of Litigation Services, LLC.
  • 7/19 - Doctors fundraiser with three local doctors, including a “Dr. Prabhu,”(Rachakonda Prabhu, longtime politically connected physician) Dr. William Resh, and Dr. Nick Spirtos
  • 7/26 - Robert Eglet, partner at Eglet Prince
  • 8/15 - Phil Peckman, CEO of The Peckman Capital Corporation
  • 8/20 - Chad Christensen, former state assemblyman
  • 8/29 - Scott Canepa, attorney at Canepa Abele Riedy, and Scott Sibley, publisher and former assemblyman
  • 9/5 - Small business fundraiser
  • 9/6 - Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder
  • 9/6 - Christopher Kaempfer and Anthony Celeste, attorneys at Kaempfer Crowell
  • 9/10 - Barbara Molasky, account executive at The Rogich Communications Group and President of the Neon Museum, and Jan Jones, former Las Vegas mayor
  • 9/11 - Laura Fitzsimmons, Sisolak’s longtime personal lawyer, and Mary Kaye Cashman, CEO of the Cashman Equipment Company
  • 9/13 - Rob Walsh, attorney at Walsh & Freedman, and Khusrow Roohani, owner of Seven Valleys Realty
  • 9/15 - Fundraiser, Bonefish Grill
  • 9/20 - Ozzie Fumo, state assemblyman
  • 9/24 - Mike Dreitzer, CEO of Gaming Arts LLC (the calendar entry for this fundraiser misspells the name as “Mike Drezier”)
  • 9/25 - Robert Goldstein, President and COO of Las Vegas Sands
  • 10/3 - George Harris, CEO of Alien Tequila, Don Ahern, CEO of Ahern Rentals
  • 10/4 - Robert Goldstein, president and COO of the Las Vegas Sands. Goldstein contributed $5,000 to Sisolak’s campaign on Aug. 21.
  • 10/5 - Dr. Tousif Pasha
  • 10/10 - Ash Mirchandani, former deputy director at the state Department of Business and Industry and lobbyist
  • 10/11 - Ross Miller, former Nevada secretary of state, Bob Miller, former Nevada governor, “Dr. Khan” (longtime politically connected physician Ike Khan)
  • 10/12 - Marybel Batjer, secretary of California’s Government Operations Agency, former VP of public policy and corporate social responsibility for Caesars Entertainment and former chief of staff for Gov. Kenny Guinn.
  • 10/17 - Mark James, former state senator and county commissioner, Neil Tomlinson, managing partner at Hyperion Advisors
  • 10/21 - Mark Miyaoka, Robert Song and Helen Hsueh, owner and publisher of the Las Vegas Chinese Daily News
  • 10/22 - Rita Vaswani, professional banking relationship manager at Nevada State Bank and Dr. Benito Calderon
  • 10/24 - John Vellardita, head of the Clark County Education Association
  • 10/25 - Sharon and Tick Segerblom, the former state senator and incoming Clark County commissioner
  • 10/26 - Dr. Nick Spirtos, CEO of the Apothecary marijuana dispensary, and NFL player Jerry Rice (Spirtos is Rice’s family doctor). The fundraiser was scheduled but did not take place.
  • 10/27 - William Hill CEO Joe Asher and company attorney Reed Horsley
  • 12/4 - Judy Perez, an executive with real estate development company Siegel Group
  • 12/5 - Tyre Gray, an attorney and lobbyist with the law firm of Fennemore Craig

Sisolak calendar by Riley Snyder on Scribd