Ford appointed to leadership position in national Democratic attorneys general group

Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford is being named co-chair of the Democratic Attorneys General Association.

Ford will serve alongside DAGA’s current co-chair, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, in the group dedicated to supporting Democratic Party candidates in attorney general races across the nation. The group helps fund Democratic candidates and also runs independent ads, including in Ford’s narrow 2018 victory over Republican challenger Wes Duncan.

“We are the party committed to voting rights, ensuring equal access to the ballot box, and combatting efforts to delegitimize our democratic institutions,” Ford said in a statement. “In the years ahead, we will support and elect strong Democratic leaders to Attorneys General offices nationwide who share these values, protect their most vulnerable constituents, and fight for the people.”

Ford was previously named to the group’s executive committee after his 2018 election. Nationwide, Democrats control 25 state attorney general offices.

After decades of backing Republican presidential candidates before swinging blue for Obama, Clinton, Washoe again a battleground in 2020

For decades, Washoe County has been a study in contrasts.

Take the 1964 election. The overwhelmingly Democratic electorate in Washoe at the time voted to give its party’s presidential nominee, Lyndon B. Johnson, his first full term in office, a little less than a year after he ascended to the presidency in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. But residents of Nevada’s second largest county that year also resoundingly supported Paul Laxalt, the Republican challenger to Democratic U.S. Sen. Howard Cannon.

A decade later, Washoe would again back Laxalt, by then the former governor of Nevada, for U.S. Senate, buoying him with a 8,334-vote margin, or about 19 percentage points, this time helping him defeat a young man by the name of Harry Reid by 624 votes statewide. At the same time, Washoe resoundingly supported Mike O’Callaghan, the popular Democratic governor, in his 1974 re-election bid by an overwhelming 47 percentage point margin.

It has happened time and time again in Washoe. Over the last 60 years, there have been 20 election cycles in which two marquee races — presidential, gubernatorial or senatorial — were on the ballot in the same year. Of those, Washoe County split its votes between the Republican and Democratic candidates in half of the cycles. 

In the other 10 cycles, Washoe voted for two Republicans seven times and two Democrats three times. Four of those double Republican wins were when the county was made up of more Democrats than Republicans, and two of those double Democratic wins were when the county had more Republicans than Democrats.

"When the state was two and a half to one Democrat, Paul Laxalt was elected governor and United States senator twice,” said Pete Ernaut, a longtime Republican consultant in the state. “That goes back to the spirit of Nevada, which I think is still alive.”

Most recently, Washoe County was responsible for helping to carry former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to a narrow victory over President Donald Trump. She won the county by 1.3 percentage points and the state as a whole by 2.4 percentage points. But Washoe also voted in support of Joe Heck, the Republican congressman, though his slim, 0.8 percentage point margin in Washoe wasn’t enough to carry him to victory over Catherine Cortez Masto, the Democratic former attorney general, who drummed up so much support in Clark County that she won while losing every other county in the state.

Political observers have a number of theories about why Washoe has been so swingy — and so willing to ticket split — over the decades. They chalk it up to the small town feel in Washoe, home to Reno, nicknamed the biggest little city, where the kind of retail politics that can feel somewhat antiquated in the digital age still matters. They chalk it up to personality, saying that who a candidate is and what they stand for matters more than the D or R behind their name. They increasingly chalk it up to the significant growth of registered nonpartisans in the county.

With politics polarized at the national level, some believe the state’s independent streak — with Washoe County as a microcosm of that — may be fading. Ticket splitting is becoming less and less common around the country, and candidates down the ballot are often tied to the person at the top of the ticket.

Nevada has increasingly been thought of as a blue state, and even Washoe County has swung bluer than it has in a long time in recent years. Barack Obama, in 2008, was the first Democratic presidential candidate Washoe voted to back since LBJ — and the county voted again for Obama in 2012 and then for Clinton in 2016. Last cycle, Washoe voted to support both Jacky Rosen and Steve Sisolak for U.S. senator and governor, respectively — two Democrats from the south — snubbing their Republican opponents from the north.

Though Washoe may appear bluer than it’s been in a long time, Republicans and Democrats alike are taking Washoe County seriously this year — and they have to. Besides the presidential race, there’s a key state Senate seat that if Democrats flip while holding on to two competitive seats could mean Democratic supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature, and Republicans only have a 0.2 percentage point voter registration advantage in the county.

“The Democrats have been fired up and done amazing outreach and amazing work for multiple cycles, and we’ve seen some incredible wins,” said state Sen. Julia Ratti, a Democrat who represents parts of Reno and Sparks. “But it still just always feels like it’s in play. The margins are always close enough that I would never take anything for granted.”

If the year 2020 proves one thing, it may be this: There’s Red America, there’s Blue America, and then there’s Washoe County.

Campaign signs in along McCarran Boulevard on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020 in Reno. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The rise of nonpartisans

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve is well acquainted with Washoe County’s independent streak. She is, after all, a registered nonpartisan herself.

As a small business owner turned politician, Schieve has witnessed firsthand some of the most significant changes in Washoe County over the last decade, from the revitalization of Midtown in Reno to a tech boom that has brought Tesla, Panasonic, Amazon and Apple, among others, to Northern Nevada. As tech companies have sought to expand in tax friendly Nevada instead of California, their employees have flocked to the Silver State, finding that things that seemed out of reach in the Bay Area, such as owning a home, are attainable in Washoe County.

Schieve said those employees have brought with them a much more socially liberal mindset, some a bit more pro-business than the typical Democrat.

“There’s a pretty big California influence happening here,” Schieve said. “They tend to be much more socially liberal, but economically, fiscally responsible.”

At the same time, Schieve has noticed a growing disillusionment with the major political parties as people find their views don’t line up with the traditional party lines.

“People say to me all the time, ‘I might have a D or an R behind my name but I’m so much more a nonpartisan.’ I hear that all the time. I don’t think it’s black and white,” Schieve said. “‘There’s a lot of things I agree with D’s on, a lot of things I agree with R’s on.’ I hear that a lot. I don’t think it’s cut and dry.”

The data bear out that nonpartisans are playing a bigger role in Washoe County than they ever have. Voter registration numbers are up by about 78,000 countywide over the last decade. Nonpartisans, who have seen about 33,000 new registrations over that period, make up a little less than half of that, which has driven down the share of both Democrats and Republicans in the electorate.

Nonpartisans currently make up about 22.5 percent of voters in Washoe County — up from 15.4 percent in 2010 — with Republicans and Democrats now nearly even in their voter registration numbers, 35.4 percent and 35.2 percent, respectively.

As their numbers have grown, a lot of time and effort has been spent on figuring out just who, exactly, nonpartisans are. Some are what are sometimes called “closet partisans,” those who consistently vote the party line even though they are registered as nonpartisans. Others are voters who split on issues between the two parties — perhaps someone who is concerned about climate change but fiscally conservative.

“I think part of it is they don’t feel at home in either of the major two parties,” said Greg Ferraro, a Republican consultant in Reno. “You can mix and match the issues because they don’t feel that either party is representative of their collective viewpoint.”

There’s a third subset of nonpartisans, those who are registered to vote but not actively politically engaged.

“I think the main commonality in all of those groups is they generally don’t like the conflict associated with politics,” said Jeremy Gelman, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. “Not registering is a way to express that displeasure. These are people who watched the debate and were put off by it.”

There is, however, a great deal of speculation as to how swingy nonpartisan voters truly are and how many of them are undecided about, say, whether to vote for Donald Trump or Joe Biden for president. 

A recent New York Times/Siena College poll found about 92 percent of likely voters in Nevada have decided who they’re voting for; only 8 percent said they could still change their minds. But among those not registered with either major political party, that certainty dropped to 83 percent, with 15 percent saying their vote could change.

“There are a lot of people moving into Washoe County from California. That’s a certainty,” said state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, who represents parts of Reno, unincorporated Washoe County and Carson City. “But I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion about which way they’re going to vote.”

All the same, Democrats have had more success in Washoe County as of late than they’ve had in the last six decades. In addition to the growth of the tech industry, Ernaut attributes recent Democratic successes to the fact that college educated women just aren’t voting Republican.

“Traditionally Washoe County has really been driven by women voters,” Ernaut said. “So when you take the fact that most college educated women aren't voting Republican, regardless of what party they're in, and you add to that a changing and more liberal demographic, though registration is sort of even, I think from a performance standpoint Washoe is much more decidedly Democratic than it's ever been before."

A crowd listens to Douglas Emhoff, husband of Vice Presidential candidate, Senator Kamala Harris speak outside Washoe Democratic Party headquarters on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020 in Reno. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Looking back through time

Although Washoe County is voting more Democratic than it typically has, it once used to be an overwhelmingly Democratic county — at least in voter registration. In 1960, Democrats had a 14 percentage point margin over Republicans in the county and yet overwhelmingly voted for Richard Nixon for president by 10.4 percentage points.

Republicans wouldn’t overtake Democrats in voter registration numbers until 1984 and still Washoe County voted year over year — with the exception of LBJ in 1964 — for Republican presidential candidates.

“Nixon wins Washoe County in ‘60, Kennedy wins Nevada, but Nixon wins Washoe. Nixon wins again in ’68 and all the way until ’08 it is Republican,” Ferraro said. “So I don’t know that registration is an indicator.”

It’s not exactly clear why the tides turned red in Washoe in the 1980s. Some say it had to do with the increasing number of retirees moving to the county. Others attribute it to Ronald Reagan and the rise of Reagan Democrats. Whatever the case, it became increasingly popular for politicians to shift their registrations from Democrat to Republican.

"You had prominent Republicans like former Lieutenant Governor Bob Cashell, former state Sen. Randolph Townsend or [former Rep.] Jim Santini,” Ernaut said. “When you had people changing parties, and it became sort of fashionable to do that, the whole tide changed in the early 80s in Washoe County for 25 years."

But even after Washoe County turned red, its residents didn’t just stop voting for Democrats. In fact, they still won the county, sometimes overwhelmingly. 

In 1988, Richard Bryan, at the time the Democratic governor of Nevada, carried Washoe County by 4.3 points in his successful bid to oust U.S. Sen. Chic Hecht, a Republican. 

Reid lost Washoe County again in 1986 — though he was still elected to the U.S. Senate — but carried it in three of his four re-election bids, including by 5.1 points in 2010 against Sharron Angle, a former Assemblywoman from Washoe County. He also only lost Washoe by 2.3 points to John Ensign in 1998, though Republicans had an 8.8 point voter registration advantage in the county.

Gov. Bob Miller carried Washoe County by 12.4 points in his 1994 re-election bid, successfully defeating Republican Jim Gibbons, a then-assemblyman representing Washoe County.

And as voter registration numbers have narrowed between Republicans and Democrats over the last decade, Washoe County voters have only ramped up their ticket splitting. In 2010, voters supported Reid for re-election but backed Brian Sandoval for governor — over Rory Reid, the elder Reid’s son. In 2012, they voted for Obama for president but Dean Heller for the U.S. Senate. In 2016, they backed Clinton and Heck.

“In Washoe County I still think it matters how well that person is thought of. It’s not a county that’s going to go right down the line, or at least history tells us that’s not the case,” Ferraro said.

While Democrats carried the top two statewide races in 2018, the rest of the statewide offices were split. Washoe County backed Democrats Kate Marshall and Catherine Byrne for lieutenant governor and controller, respectively, but supported Republicans Wes Duncan, Barbara Cegavske and Bob Beers for attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer. And the county continued to back Republican Mark Amodei for Congress.

“Here’s the paradox in Washoe County. Last election, non-presidential, you’ve got half D, half R in Washoe County,” Ferraro said. “Rosen wins but Amodei wins. Cegavske wins but Marshall wins. Duncan wins but Sisolak wins. It’s mixed.”

Though ticket-splitting is increasingly uncommon across the nation, it still somehow seems to be possible in Washoe County. Most people attribute it, at least in part, to the kind of small town feel that’s still possible in Northern Nevada.

“I remember being at a Reno Aces game — Dean Heller was in the Senate — and after a game, I turned behind me and Dean Heller is standing there all by himself watching his grandkids run the bases too,” Kieckhefer said. “It’s that kind of access and exposure and interaction that people get that is something that helps drive some of those weird outcomes in elections.”

But the nationalization of Nevada politics may be starting to change some of that. Heller, the beloved Carson City boy who earned respect from Democrats during his tenure as secretary of state, lost his re-election bid to the U.S. Senate by 3.6 percentage points in Washoe to Rosen, the first-term congresswoman from Henderson, after carrying the county by 11.1 points in 2012.

Rosen’s campaign had painted Heller as “Senator Spineless,” the nail in his coffin his hot and cold relationship with President Donald Trump and his waffling on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. It was no match for the goodwill he had earned.

“You’re starting to see that creeping of the nationalization into Washoe County politics,” Gelman said. “I think the best evidence of that was Dean Heller lost Washoe County.”

A rally in support of law enforcement organized by the Nevada Republican Party on Thursday, July 30, 2020 outside the Legislature in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The next three weeks

Residents of Washoe County still have a lot of faith in the power of retail politics. Kieckhefer said that one-on-one interactions with voters can be “incredibly powerful” for a candidate in his experience.

“If someone has a real strong reaction to something that you voted for or something you voted against, walking through that thought process with a voter about why you did something is a really powerful way to connect with that voter,” Kieckhefer said. “Demonstrating you’re thoughtful and you do things for a reason, it’s not a reaction on a party line, they tend to respect that.”

Kieckhefer is of the mind that Washoe County voters are discerning and unwilling to buy into what he framed as the “broad brushstrokes” of national politics that state and local candidates are often painted with.

“I think that the majority of people see through that crap, frankly. You can’t sit here and try to tell me that Catherine Cortez Masto is the same thing as Nancy Pelosi and that’s going to drive my vote,” Kieckhefer said. “That’s not how people in Northern Nevada are going to do that.”

The question this year, then, is how the power of those personal relationships built through retail politics might be diminished by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

On the other hand, perhaps the better question is how they might be enhanced.

Ratti said that where a candidate might have once been excited to get 40 people to show up for a town hall at a library, they can host a virtual town hall over Zoom and a couple hundred people will show up.

“In some ways, the pandemic in our political lives and our personal lives has increased connection,” Ratti said. “We’re not doing the same things we used to, but we’re still connecting.”

Both the Trump and Biden campaigns have made significant investments in Washoe County this cycle. Trump Victory spokesman Keith Schipper said that the campaign has made more than 600,000 voter contacts in Washoe and has had staff on the ground in the county for more than a year.

In fact, the first Trump Victory office anywhere in the United States outside of the national headquarters was in Reno, Schipper noted.

“All the people that have visited, the investment we have made, obviously Washoe having the first field office in the country shows not only how important Washoe County is for winning Nevada, but it says a lot when you put the first office in the country in Washoe County,” Schipper said.

Trump was initially scheduled to rally supporters in Reno last month, but the venue was changed to Minden after officials at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport scuttled the event on the grounds that it would have violated state coronavirus health and safety directives. Several thousand supporters, most of them not wearing masks, showed up to the outdoor rally at the Minden-Tahoe Airport.

At the same time the Biden campaign, which has primarily run a virtual campaign since the beginning of the pandemic, though it recently announced a transition to some in-person campaigning, has been recruiting volunteers, phone banking and texting voters from afar and recently opened a campaign material distribution center at the Washoe County Democratic Party headquarters. The campaign is also now doing lit drops at voter doors four days a week with plans to ramp that up.

Alana Mounce, Biden’s state director and most recently the executive director of the Nevada State Democratic Party, attributed recent Democratic electoral success in Washoe County to the effort Democrats have put in to get voters to turn out. In 2018, Republicans had a 1.9 percentage point voter registration advantage over Democrats but Rosen defeated Heller by 3.6 points.

“In 2018, Democrats had a 2 percent voter registration disadvantage and because of the work that we focused on with independent voters, nonpartisan voters, we were able to win in Washoe County,” Mounce said. “2020 is no different. Part of the broad base of people that we are talking to, engaging with, is our nonpartisan voters, especially in Washoe County, but across the state."

With ballots now mailed out to every active registered voter in Nevada, the unknown this year is just exactly what turnout will look like in November. The primary, which saw more than 490,000 ballots cast, the vast majority of them mail-in ballots, was one of the highest turnout primaries in the state’s history.

The recent New York Times/Siena College poll taken earlier this month found that about 42 percent of respondents plan to early vote — traditionally the most popular voting method in Nevada — with another 27 percent voting by mail and 24 person voting in-person on Election Day. This year is also the first year that voters are able to register to vote on Election Day and still cast a ballot.

“I expect turnout to be very, very high, between mail-in ballots, early voting, and in-person voting with same-day registration,” Ferraro said. “We have a presidential race that will drive turnout higher … I think all of those combine to drive turnout really high.”

As unusual as this year has been, it has made it even harder to forecast what the outcome will be next month.

“The ways that we have contact with people are just so different that I don’t trust my experiences the same way that I might in another year,” Ratti said. “I feel less confident about how I even think about what’s happening in our county. And it’s not that I’m not having contact, but the contact is just so different that trying to benchmark it against any prior experience feels difficult, feels unreliable.”

As for the future of Washoe County, those who have worked in politics for a long time in the county are hopeful that its community spirit will persist even in the face of a polarized national electorate.

"I think the natural order of things at some point will mean that the pendulum will swing back to the center in Nevada,” Ernaut said, “because that's what Nevada's DNA is — to be more center and more independent.”

State Senator Heidi Seevers-Gansert drops campaign literature in Northwest Reno on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Election Preview: Sparks City Council candidates fight to show they know community the best, look to address infrastructure, housing

City of Sparks signage

With the death of Mayor Ron Smith in early August, the Sparks City Council has already experienced a shake up this year. The November election may bring a new round of musical chairs.

Former Ward 2 Councilman Ed Lawson, who was previously mayor pro tempore, the person who serves in the mayor's absence, was sworn in as mayor in mid-September. Dian VanderWell was appointed to Lawson’s seat with a unanimous vote by the council.

Although the 2018 race in Sparks saw all three open seats of the five-person council filled in the primary, this year's primary didn't solidify all results. Instead, the two incumbents in Wards 1 and 3 had considerable leads over their opponents, but fell short of the 50-plus-one votes needed to avoid a general election.

Incumbents Donald Abbott in Ward 1 and Paul Anderson in Ward 3 have had a considerable lead in cash on hand since the cycle started and point to their primary wins as a sign of support from voters. Meanwhile, challengers Wendy Stolyarov in Ward 1 and Quentin Smith in Ward 3 have characterized the incumbents as disconnected from their respective wards and argue that they would be better representatives on the council. The job comes with a salary of about $55,000

With no challengers, Councilman Kristopher Dahir will automatically reclaim his Ward 5 seat, which runs from city center to the north of Sparks.

Here's a look at the races.

Ward 1

Abbott and Stolyarov are seeking to prove who is the most on-the-ground and connected to the voters of Ward 1, which covers downtown and the southwest portion of the city.

The June primary showed Abbott taking the lead with 45.8 percent of the vote. Stolyarov was 268 votes behind and took 33.5 percent of the vote.

Abbott won the seat in 2016, becoming the youngest member to ever serve on the council at 26 years old. He said he is seeking reelection to expand the senior citizen advisory board, continue downtown development while honoring Sparks’ history and support city infrastructure, including keeping the sewer treatment plant running properly and prioritizing which roads and sidewalks to redo. 

"This wasn't a job I ever thought I would ever have, and I'm thankful everyday to not only help the city, but to help the people and be accessible to people," he said.

Abbott labels his creation of a senior citizen advisory committee, a campaign promise, as the greatest achievement of his first term and said helping elders in the community is a passion of his, in spite of his youth. He said he wants to use his second term in part to keep the board alive and help it grow.

Remaining accessible to constituents is a priority for Abbott, who said he's "on the clock theoretically to Sparks 24 hours a day, 7 days a week." He said he's made a point of connecting with constituents during his time on the council and answering his phone even outside of business hours.

"There are probably a ton of different  …  ideas I have from either people calling me with either a complaint or a suggestion of things that we could do in Ward 1, but we haven't been able to get to it because either funding or hands tied around this and that," he said. "So there's more people to help."

Stolyarov said she was motivated to run for the Ward 1 seat after experiencing issues with rising rent in Sparks, a city she moved to in 2017 in part for its affordability, and thinking, "if [the increase in rent] was bad for me, it was going to be substantially worse for a lot of people." Rents have increased more than 40 percent in the Reno-Sparks area since 2014. 

Stolyarov said the final straw in her decision to run was Mayor Ron Smith's attempt to shut down Drag Queen Story Hour in 2019 and seeing that Lawson was the only council member to show up for the event. She said she felt it sent an unwelcoming message to people who identify as "something that isn't strictly straight and cis." 

"I just thought, 'That's it. We've got to have more representation on Sparks City Council. We need to do more work on affordable housing, and we need to make sure that everyone feels welcome here,'" she said. 

Stolyarov, who identifies as pansexual and would be the first openly LGBTQ+ member of the Sparks City Council, said she has a 10-point plan for increasing Sparks’ rating for the Human Rights Campaign's Municipal Equality Index that measures a city's support for LGBTQ+ people. Sparks has a 44 out of 100, beating only Mesquite of the 10 Nevada cities analyzed. Next door, Reno has a 100.

If elected, Stolyarov said her first priority would be creating affordable housing, bringing down the cost of existing housing and increasing renter and tenant protections, especially in the context of the "tsunami" coming with the end of the eviction moratorium. 

"Ward 1 is one of the poorest areas in the region and the number of people who are suffering right now is astonishing," she said. "We need moral leadership to help people who are suffering right now. People who are barely hanging on by their fingernails."

Stolyarov, who has been highlighting that she is a Democrat on campaign materials, said that as a registered nonpartisan, Abbott is not representative of the "very blue" Ward. 

"He's not a Democrat and has voted with his Republican colleagues on pretty much everything. It's just unanimous vote after unanimous vote," she said. "I believe there should be at least one Democrat on Sparks City Council, and Ward 1 deserves representation."

All councilmembers are registered Republican or nonpartisan, or they didn't specify their party.

Stolyarov also said that Democrat Denise López, who ran against Abbott in 2016, should be in the Ward 1 seat because she won the most votes from Ward 1 voters in both the primary and the general election, but because Sparks did hybrid voting — where voters of the ward determine the primary winners but voters of the city determine the winner of the election — Abbott won in 2016. 

In the 2017 session, the Legislature passed SB202, introduced by Democratic Sen. Julia Ratti, the Ward 1 city councilwoman Abbott succeeded, to make all Sparks City Council races determined only by voters in a respective ward. 

Ratti's election PAC gave Stolyarov $1,500.

Abbott pointed to this year's primary win as evidence that he has support in his ward and said that councilmembers wear two hats: supporting their respective ward and representing the city as a whole.

Abbott raised about $4,400 in the second quarter, $3,000 of which came from donations of more than $100 — a big switch from his first quarter fundraising that saw more than $4,000 of his $6,000 raised coming from donations of $100 or less. His biggest donations were $1,500 from the Committee to elect Wes Duncan, a Republican who lost to Aaron Ford in the 2018 race for attorney general, $1,000 from NV Energy and $1,100 via an in-kind donation of advertising from a Northern Nevada Spanish newspaper, El Sol de Nevada.

Stolyarov almost doubled her fundraising in the second period, raising more than $12,000, compared to the first period. Stolyarov, who owns a company that provides media work for Northern Nevada labor organizations, received several donations from unions, including $5,000 from the Washington D.C.-based Teamsters DRIVE Committee, the political action committee of the largest union in the country, and $1,000 from Construction Trades COPE, which represents several local unions. Democratic Assemblywoman Sarah Peters' PAC also donated $1,000 to Stolyarov.

Both Abbott and Stolyarov have bought several rounds of Facebook advertising, but Abbott has extended his advertising to Google and Snapchat. After spending almost $27,000 mostly on advertising, Abbott has more than $19,000 in cash on hand. Stolyarov spent more than $12,000 on advertising and has $4,000 in available cash.

Ward 3 

Like Ward 1, the Ward 3 primary saw incumbent Anderson, with 44.6 percent of the vote, secure a significant lead over novice challengers, beating Smith by 999 votes. Smith edged out the rest of the competition, beating out third place by just 47 votes and taking 19.2 percent of the vote. 

Anderson was appointed to the Ward 3 seat, covering southeast Sparks, in 2018 by Ron Smith after he became mayor. 

Outside of his nearly two years on the council, Anderson said he has better experience than Smith for the position. He cited 30 years of various roles in the business sector and his appointment from three governors to the State Board of Agriculture, which he says is similar in budget responsibilities and personnel management to the city council. 

If he retains his seat, Anderson said he would continue to address long-lasting hardships from the pandemic, including "responsible budgeting" in light of deep cuts. Anderson said one of his biggest concerns is public health and safety, which he said encompasses everything from supporting firefighters to infrastructure. 

"I joke about if you flush your toilet and the contents end up in your living room, you've got a health and safety issue," he said. "Likewise with the roadways and everything else, it goes along with that infrastructure. If they're not maintained and provided for adequately, that in itself is gonna cause us health and safety issues."

Anderson said he's been getting involved with the community and listening to needs during the pandemic by joining various meetings, including those of homeowners associations and business groups. He has also joined other councilmembers in attending city-sponsored Every Voice Counts meetings, which focuses on diversity, inclusion and equity, with Hispanic and Black community members.

"I've come to understand that I have a different lens that I look through than other people in the community," Anderson said. "It sometimes cuts deep when you hear the concerns of others that I might not see or might not understand." 

Anderson said some policies coming from these conversations are in motion, including the implementation of a diversity council that was approved years ago but never progressed.

Smith said that from his perspective as a resident, he hasn't seen the city council address critical issues such as housing affordability and a stagnant economy in Sparks. He said Anderson is "aloof" and not connected to the community.

If elected, Smith said that bringing transparency to the role will be his main priority. He also said he would make his calendar public, so constituents can know who he is meeting with and when.

"I'm looking to revolutionize this position. This is not just about building codes and planning — it's about dealing with the day-to-day operations about what's going on in the city," he said. "I'm looking to change this role to be more than just city planning."

Smith, a faculty member at the University of Nevada, Reno who recruits National Merit Scholarship finalists and other scholars, said he would like to address issues with homelessness in the area, the rising cost of homes, water-related issues and long response times from fire stations in the area.

He would also like to see "smart growth.” Smith said he has refused to take funds from developers so as to not compromise his decisions if he wins in November, explaining that developing on the surrounding mountains might have environmental consequences and may also irritate home owners who were told years ago that no one would build behind them.

"I'm in an area that is landlocked, and I don't want to take anyone's money to change my view of what they want to be built," he said. "I want developers to come and go to the planning commission and also the city council and put forth the best idea that works for the city, not necessarily for their back pocket."

In the first quarter, Anderson received a $5,000 donation from Silverwind Development, which has completed millions of dollars' worth of development in Victorian Square in downtown Sparks. In the second quarter, Anderson raised $3,500, including $2,000 from Q&D Construction, $1,000 from NV Energy and $500 from the Associated General Contractors. 

Smith raised $8,430 in the second quarter, including a $5,000 donation from the Teamsters Union Local 533 and $500 from the Ironworkers Local 118. He also made several small loans to himself totaling nearly $2,500. 

Anderson and Smith both spent most of their spending – $19,000 and $5,300, respectively — on advertising and consultants. Anderson has $13,000 in available cash and Smith has $4,535.

Smith echoed sentiments of other candidates and urged voters to pay attention to local races even amid a fiery presidential election.

"When let's say your national government fails you, then where do you look? And that's why I think it's so important to know who your local officials are," he said. "Because sometimes there is help at the local level where nationally, folks can't really help you."

Disclosure: Wendy Stolyarov's fiancé is David Colborne, a columnist for The Nevada Independent.

Police bodycam footage of AG Ford, child to remain confidential, Supreme Court rules

The Nevada Supreme Court has ruled that police body cam footage of Attorney General Aaron Ford in an incident involving his child and police cannot be turned over to a Republican political organization that sought the video through a public records request.

A three-justice panel of the state’s Supreme Court issued the ruling on Thursday, affirming a lower court’s decision to keep confidential body camera footage of an event involving Ford in November 2017 and requested by the Republican Attorney Generals Association (RAGA), which opposed the Democrat during the 2018 election.

RAGA — a political organization that supported Ford’s Republican opponent, Wes Duncan — said last year it had heard from a “credible,” unnamed anonymous source that Ford attempted to use his status of “authority as an elected official” to unduly influence an outcome involving police and his child. The group had submitted carefully tailored public records requests focused only on Ford that excluded any footage of minors, but was rejected by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department as confidential because it involved children under the age of 18.

RAGA appealed the decision to the Supreme Court after a District Court judge upheld the police department’s position, and participated in oral arguments before the court in December 2019.

In the order, the three-justice panel rejected an argument made by RAGA that a failure of Las Vegas police to respond to their records request within the required five day period did not automatically waive rights of confidentiality related to the records.

“Waiving LVMPD’s assertion of confidentiality would lead to an absurd penalty resulting in the public disclosure of Nevadans’ private information solely because of LVMPD’s failure to respond,” they wrote in the order.

The court’s order does directly note that it considers bodycam footage from police officers subject to the state’s public records act, but that it was limited by existing portions of law granting confidentiality to juveniles and others.

“Without the Legislature’s express direction otherwise, we are unwilling to subject Nevadans to possibly having their statutorily protected information disclosed because it was captured on a police officer’s bodycam,” they wrote in the order.

Although RAGA had suggested that the court could order Metro to redact portions of the video involving juveniles, the Supreme Court justices — who noted they reviewed the bodycam footage in question — said that Ford’s appearance and communications made in the video are “inextricably commingled with the confidential juvenile justice information.”

However, the high court did find that the District Court abused its discretion in denying RAGA’s petition for related records, including the police report, witness and victim statements and other information related to the arrest. It remanded that portion of the case back to district court.

"AG Ford is not above the rule of law and should work with the Metropolitan Police Department to release this information," RAGA spokeswoman Kelly Laco said in an email. "The public deserves a higher level of transparency and accountability from their top law enforcement officer."

Updated at 12:06 p.m. to add a quote from RAGA.

Growing Pains: Records paint a picture of unrest in Nevada marijuana industry

Customers at Nuwu Dispensary

In just two years, the narrative surrounding Nevada’s legal marijuana industry has shifted from praise for the improbably smooth and lucrative launch of recreational cannabis sales to an industry divided by legal wrangling and clouded by questions about the adequacy of state regulation.

Many questions remain unanswered: Who’s on a secretive new governor-convened task force focused on “rooting out potential corruption” in the marijuana realm? Was there corruption to begin with, either by the state or by businesses? Will anyone lose a license? 

Thanks to a bill signed into law this spring, there’s a bit more sunlight on a process that was once completely shrouded in secrecy because of taxpayer confidentiality laws.

Over the next few weeks, a series of stories called “The Cannabis Files” will explore the trends laid out in the data released from SB32 and analyzed by The Nevada Independent. The records not only reveal who has a stake in the business, but paint a picture of a rapidly changing industry that is becoming increasingly corporate, with ownership transfers so frequent that elected officials find it hard to keep up.

Opening up the information “ushers in a new era of transparency that will benefit the industry and the public,” Gov. Steve Sisolak said when he signed the bill in May, and it offers a glimpse of the challenges that will lie ahead as Nevada once again overhauls its marijuana regulation next year and adopts a Cannabis Control Board oversight regime not unlike the one that reined casinos into a respected mainstream.

“I will say, overall, I think our industry is at a point that is not terribly different than gaming was,” said John Ritter, a board member with The Grove and the Nevada Dispensary Association. “I welcome the fact that the industry is treated seriously and being treated like gaming.”

Buyers outside marijuana dispensary

Hundreds of people line up to purchase recreational marijuana in Nevada at Reef Dispensaries on Saturday, July 1, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

A house divided 

Nevada’s launch of recreational marijuana sales in July 2017, six months ahead of schedule, was met with great fanfare, especially in light of troubles neighboring states encountered with their rollouts. 

But in spite of the high-flying revenue numbers — the state brought in $70 million in its first year, or 140 percent of what it had projected — critics now wonder whether corners were cut in the rush to unlock the recreational marijuana market, which dwarfs the size of the medical marijuana market. And they wonder whether the Department of Taxation that assumed responsibility of marijuana regulation in 2017 was prepared for a task that has since dominated its workload and that in the future will be assigned to a marijuana-specific board with more enforcement teeth. 

“This is another area where I think there was a rush to get revenue into state coffers,” Sisolak said on Thursday at the release of an audit of the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division. “We’re doing everything we can to clean up those issues.”

Chief among those issues are questions about whether the state was unfair when it awarded 61 conditional dispensary licenses in late 2018, in response to more than 460 applications. While many dispensary owners agree the initial voter-approved dispensary cap is prudent to keep the quality of the stores high and avoid having one on every street corner, the concentration of those new licenses among just 17 businesses — including one business that captured a full 11 licenses — surprised and angered those who did not win. The state is involved in about a dozen lawsuits over the situation.

An audit launched in March and released last week concluded that the state’s licensing process was adequate, if not perfect. Auditors said more transparency about the scoring criteria and automation to reduce human errors while reviewing business applications would help, as well as redistributing licenses that can’t be used because they’re for jurisdictions that have a marijuana moratorium. 

The audit revealed no bombshells or conclusive evidence that the process was rigged. But the questions will be further litigated in court at trial, scheduled to begin this spring.

Court proceedings stemming from a lawsuit filed by dispensary owners who did not win additional licenses lasted for months this summer and led to a partial preliminary injunction in August that barred the state from granting some dispensaries final approval to open. Clark County District Court Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez agreed that there were flaws with the process, saying it “was impacted by personal relationships” and that a diversity category was “subject to manipulation by applicants,”  but did not toss the entire licensing round out of hand. 

Marijuana enforcement agency leader Jorge Pupo, whose dinners with certain applicants and apparent selective sharing of information about applications was a focal point of the court proceedings, left the post under circumstances that have not been fully explained. But one of the biggest consequences of the lawsuit and subsequent moratorium has been a split between the haves and have nots, with dispensary license winners blaming the losers for lawsuits that have jammed up their efforts to open the new stores.

“It’s created a giant schism with the industry,” said David Goldwater, a board member of the Nevada Dispensary Association and owner of Inyo Fine Cannabis Dispensary, which did not win additional licenses in the latest round.

Late last month, eight cases against the state were consolidated as they head for trial.

Employee at Acres Cannabis
Amber Jansen organizes marijuana merchandise inside the Underground, a cannabis farmers market inside Acres Cannabis in Las Vegas on Friday, April 20, 2018. Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent

Foreign influence

On top of that dispute, a recent indictment alleges that two associates of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani with ties to Eastern Europe conspired to get involved in the industry. Once they missed the deadline, they allegedly made illegal campaign donations to Republican gubernatorial hopeful Adam Laxalt and attorney general candidate Wes Duncan — financed by a foreign national — in hopes that they would sway well-positioned politicians to change the entire licensing scheme.

Though the two men were unsuccessful in obtaining a license, the revelation prompted Sisolak — a champion of the industry, if the marijuana world’s more than $700,000 in campaign donations in the 2018 cycle is any indication — to proclaim his outrage and order sweeping action.

Ask industry advocates, though, and they point to the haplessness of the conspirators: They appeared to hatch their plan in early September 2018, the same time as a deadline for a complicated application that some businesses had worked on filling out for months or years. They tried to woo a gubernatorial candidate who, in 2016, campaigned against legalizing marijuana and then lost the 2018 election.

“I think what happened with the Ukrainian thing was a Three Stooges thing,” said Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom, a champion of the industry now and in his former career as a state lawmaker.

Nevertheless, it’s prompted Sisolak to convene a secretive task force aimed at “rooting out potential corruption” in the industry. Sisolak has declined to so much as name the agencies that are part of the task force, saying he doesn’t want to compromise their investigations. While insiders say the force is comprised of law enforcement, Sisolak’s office said Friday it still needs time to answer a records request about the membership, three weeks after The Nevada Independent first submitted the inquiry.

In neighboring California, The Sacramento Bee found loopholes in the process of changing ownership on marijuana licenses that had allowed dispensary ownership to fall to a small number of people — including a Ukrainian-born businessman indicted on campaign finance charges — in spite of anti-monopoly rules. Sacramento is now considering a moratorium of its own on license transfers, and the FBI is investigating whether bribery of city officials played a role in the licensing process.

Still, Segerblom believes Sisolak’s response has cast too much suspicion on the system.

“I understood what [Sisolak] was saying but I think he tarnished the whole industry unnecessarily,” Segerblom said. “Does he know something I don't know? … While there could be a few problems here and there … it’s phenomenally successful.”

Senator Tick Segerblom standing in front of a cash register
Democratic Sen. Tick Segerblom makes the first marijuana purchase at The Source in Las Vegas on July 1, 2017. Photo by Joe Fury.

Moratorium on license transfers

Even more sweeping, state officials in mid-October called for an indefinite moratorium on transfers of licenses. Transfers are common, and can result from things like shareholders wanting to sell out or going through a divorce.

But critics say the process of transferring a license is too much easier than the initial application process, and could lead to unsavory characters getting a foothold in the industry. The Department of Taxation said it would not be processing new or existing applications as it tries to ensure “a more thorough and appropriate vetting process within the industry.”

The moratorium can also stall major mergers and buyouts, though, causing businesses to miss contractual deadlines and face fines. At an Oct. 23 Reno City Council meeting, officials with Deep Roots Harvest went so far as to say the hold is likely to scuttle New York City-based Acreage Holdings’ plans to acquire the company for $120 million.

“With everything that is going on at the state … there is a very low likelihood that that transaction will manifest,” Keith Capurro, part-owner of Deep Roots Harvest, which won five new dispensary licenses in the latest round.

“It’s definitely affecting folks,” Goldwater said. “We’re all trying to figure out the moratorium. It came as a surprise.”

Asked for details on the timeframe of the moratorium, Sisolak deferred to the leader of the Nevada Department of Taxation and his appointee to lead the forthcoming Cannabis Control Board: Tyler Klimas, a former lobbyist serving the governor’s office in Washington D.C. who was also previously a spokesperson for Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Silver State Health Insurance Exchange.

“No,” Sisolak said in a brief interview Thursday when asked if he knew when the moratorium would end. “I’ve got total confidence in [Taxation] Director [Melanie] Young and Tyler and they’re going to move forward.”

Tryke Companies, which owns Reef Dispensaries and this fall announced plans to be acquired by Cresco Labs, is urging quick action. Late last month, the company completed a Hart-Scott-Rodino Act review, a detailed antitrust probe involving the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice.

“While we fully support the Governor’s efforts to ensure a strong and empowered regulatory framework for Nevada cannabis, we strongly urge a swift resolution to the moratorium,” said Brett Scolari, Tryke’s general counsel. “We look forward to working with state officials on a quick resolution of the approval process in the coming months as we take the final step in this highly regulated public transaction.”

Some in the industry say they support the moratorium, although they sympathize with companies hampered by it. It’s a step toward bolstering public confidence in the business of marijuana, they say.

“Look at how the public perceived gaming 50 years ago —  that was a huge sin and it was looked down upon,” Ritter said. “Because of what Nevada did to clean up the industry, get the mob out, we proved that can be done and now gaming has proliferated across the world. That’s why I think that in the long term, making sure that this industry is properly regulated, that the owners and managers are properly vetted — in the long term [that’s] good for our industry.”

A man, asking to be identified only as Junior, selects marijuana products inside Exhale Nevada dispensary in Las Vegas on Friday, April 20, 2018. Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent

Consolidation

Data released by the state through SB32 illustrate the trend of businesses once led by prominent local names selling for sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars to major, multinational companies that seek to launch powerful chains. It has troubled some local government officials who envisioned a more home-grown, local industry and not a Wal-Mart for pot.

“I think the idea was to keep it local and home-grown and sadly I think it’s been lost,” Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve said in an interview. “How is someone from Canada going to care about the local environment? … Are they watching out for the community?”

Some companies have gone public on the Canadian Stock Exchange — a move that critics say is making it harder to tell who is in control, but that industry advocates say is a fact of life because marijuana remains illegal on the federal level and traditional banking and access to capital is out of reach in the U.S.

“You can’t go to a bank and borrow money to expand,” said Segerblom, who was previously on the board of a publicly traded Canadian marijuana company that purchased Greenmart of Nevada. “You have to get to a stock exchange somewhere.”

The data also show an industry where female owners are firmly in the minority, in spite of efforts to promote diversity. High barriers for entry, which included $250,000 in liquid capital, appear to be getting higher as the industry grows in sophistication.

The professionalization also shows in the Nevada Dispensary Association’s recent decision to create a PAC aimed at shaping more unified state marijuana policy going forward. The PAC, called the Nevada Can Committee, aims “to assist Nevada's legal cannabis industry in coalescing its political efforts and engagement, including providing education and support for candidates for elected office,” said NDA Executive Director Riana Durrett, and “will support candidates from all parties and a variety of backgrounds.”

While some lament that a substance that landed low-level dealers in jail even a few years ago has evolved into a multibillion-dollar industry that is the purview of the wealthy and sophisticated, others say the industry’s evolution into an increasingly corporate political and legal powerhouse is a sign of a healthy and maturing industry, and is ultimately a good thing for the state.

“Nevada marijuana excise taxes fund our states education program … Growth in the cannabis industry is not just good for jobs and redevelopment, it is good for education,” said Bob Groesbeck, an owner with Planet 13. “We cannot speak specifically to all mergers and acquisitions taking place in Nevada – but generally we view this as a positive sign of a healthy industry.”

Check back with The Nevada Independent in the coming days and weeks for more stories in the “Cannabis Files” series on the most notable names in the industry, diversity in the business, and the consolidations and transfers that are changing the face of the nascent marijuana business in Nevada.

Attorney General chief of staff ‘signs’ campaign fundraising pitch

Attorney General Aaron Ford’s top aide attached her name to a fundraising email pitch sent on behalf of Ford’s campaign, a move that raises questions over the mixture of official and campaign staff but one his office insists is allowed under state law.

An email sent Thursday afternoon entitled “I need to be honest with you” and “signed” by Ford’s chief of staff Jessica Adair makes a typical campaign fundraising pitch, highlighting the attorney general’s actions since taking office, including joining an antitrust case against Google and fought the Trump administration on DACA, saying it’s made him a “top target for Republicans.”

“Republicans barely lost Nevada in the 2016 presidential election. They want to make up all their gains and take back every seat, including Aaron’s,” Adair wrote in the email. “Can you give $5 to keep that from happening so Aaron can continue fighting for you in court?”

Nevada’s state administrative code generally allows employees to engage in political activity, but prohibits them from engaging in “political activity during the hours of his or her state employment to improve the chances of a political party or a person seeking office.”

In an email, attorney general’s office spokeswoman Monica Moazez said the email pitch was entirely written by a fundraising company, New Blue Interactive, and approved Wednesday night by Adair, who was Ford’s campaign manager last year.

“No public resources or work time were used in the creation or dissemination of this email,” she said in an email on Friday. “The AG’s office maintains policies to ensure that separation from campaign activities is strictly observed.”

Emailed fundraising pitches have exploded in popularity since former President Barack Obama used them to raise millions during his 2008 and 2012 campaigns. Although sometimes repetitive or annoying, most studies indicate that personalized, targeted fundraising email campaigns are highly effective at raising money. The emails are typically signed by a candidate or other staffer, but are almost always written by a fundraising firm.

Ford, who narrowly defeated Republican Wes Duncan in the 2018 election, has sent roughly 60 campaign-related emails in the 11 months following Election Day. Almost all of the emails are listed as coming directly from Ford or “Ford HQ” — the email sent Thursday was the first to be “signed” by Adair. 

Other state officials, most notably former Controller Kathy Augustine, have landed in hot water for mixing state resources with campaign-related activities. She was fined by the state Ethics Commission and impeached by the Assembly in 2004 after admitting to forcing state personnel to help her 2002 re-election campaign. Augustine was ultimately convicted on one charge and acquitted of three others, receiving a censure but allowed to remain in office.

To reduce corruption, first reduce the opportunity

Cannabis strains on display

A few weeks ago, as revelations that two political candidates in 2018 were given large donations by foreign nationals in an amateurish attempt to secure lucrative marijuana sales licenses came to light, Gov. Sisolak expressed his outrage. He’s not wrong to be mad, although it’s a little surprising to hear a prominent member of the party of open borders grinding his teeth about “foreigners” participating in our economy.

But then the governor did an odd thing. He proposed creating more opportunity for graft and corruption in the marijuana industry. 

Obviously, he did not actually say this, nor, I am certain, does he intend it. But his proposal is to bring an even heavier government hand down on marijuana sellers, creating a pot regulatory committee modeled after Nevada’s Gaming Control Board. This, in turn means more involvement by politicians who rely on campaign contributions to keep their jobs, and more mid-level bureaucrats who might feel like they really need to buy a hot tub this year.

Until this new Pot Pentaverate is exercising what I assume will be “absolute power and authority” over all things cannabis (which seems to be a little less… free spirited than the pro-legalization hippies probably had in mind), state officials are scrambling to rework theregulatory framework. Attorney General Aaron Ford spelled it out for us all when he said:

“Cannabis is a new industry that will be regulated by a new state agency. The courts and regulatory bodies are still sorting through how it should be regulated. The consequences of its failure are — and I don’t have to say this to you — too dire for us to run the risk of us not being able to properly represent it.”

Ford certainly has a flair for the apocalyptic. But he, too, is working hard to create the consequence he fears. 

***

In voting to legalize marijuana, the people of Nevada declared that “its cultivation and sale should be regulated similar to other legal businesses.”  (Of course, the people of Nevada also declared that pot should be regulated in a confusing and economically stupid way like we do with alcohol – people really ought to read the entirety of the law they’re voting for in an initiative petition.)

Regulating marijuana cultivation and sales like any other business makes sense. Human civilization is effectively defined by when we first started growing things and either using them personally or taking our crops to market. We already know how regulate businesses for purposes of confirming qualifications, collecting taxes, etc. Why is it that it has been such a challenge?  What are courts and regulatory bodies “still sorting out,” as Ford has said? Why is this so hard?

Yes, marijuana is an intoxicant and can therefore be dangerous in a variety of ways, and reasonable regulation to mitigate those dangers are warranted. But we regulate all sorts of products that could be dangerous. For example, if you want to sell propane, you must get approval from and be regularly inspected by employees of the state LP Gas Board, and as a result, we don’t hear regular explosions from gas stations or hardware stores. 

So why is it that no Ukranians are setting up shell bank accounts to pay off voting members of the LP Gas Board?  (Disclaimer: I served as a voting member of that board from 2010-2014. As far as I can remember, no former Eastern Bloc national ever offered to bribe me. I wouldn’t have accepted such a bribe, but as I type this must admit feeling a little unloved that no one ever tried.)

The answer is that it would have been a waste of money. There is no limit on the number of propane sellers any given municipality can have, at least not one set by the government. Anyone who has properly set up their sales area in accordance with pre-published safety standards and passed an appropriate test can get their requisite license. There are fees, but they, too, are pre-published and way less pricey than a bribe.

In other words, it is keeping the regulatory hand as light and as limited as possible while still serving to protect the safety of the public that keeps it so corruption-proof.

There is no public safety reason to limit the number of marijuana dispensary licenses, and indeed, no legitimate reason at all. Beyond some sort of quality control inspection to ensure consumers aren’t being poisoned, why in the world would we need anything else?  

The only reason huge political donations come from the marijuana industry is because of the artificial scarcity the foolishly-drafted legalization initiative foisted upon us. If anyone with the capital to set up shop or a thumb green enough to start growing product could do so as long as they meet minimum public safety standards, there would be no graft or corruption because there would be no reason for graft or corruption.

The more you regulate an industry, the more the participants of that industry will feel compelled to involve themselves – and their money – in the political process. Such involvement is – and should be – protected by the First Amendment. You cannot make laws that affect someone’s livelihood and then tell them they aren’t allowed to lobby the lawmakers or financially support candidates they think may be better for their business. If you’re interested in keeping businesses out of politics, you have to start by keeping politics out businesses as much as possible.

A lot of people are clutching their pearls because two indicted Ukranian fellows donated $10,000 to then-gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt and then-Attorney General candidate Wes Duncan in the hopes that it would give them an “in” for pot licensing (even though the idea that this would buy much in the way of influence is frankly a bit silly). But the existing domestic marijuana industry didn’t give Gov. Sisolak nearly three-quarters of a million dollars last year just because they were charmed by his penchant for not wearing ties with his suits. Those donations would never have been made if we truly regulated marijuana like any other legal business, and the public would be no worse off safety-wise.

***

I’m glad the governor wants to root out and prevent corruption, and I’m glad the attorney general wants to get regulation right. But their so-called solutions, born of their instinct to solve all of the world’s problems with more layers of government intervention, will only invite more problems.

If marijuana is to be legal, let’s treat it like any other legal business. Let the market – not bribable bureaucrats – decide how many dispensaries a community can support. Regulation for its own sake isn’t helpful. Identify the problems first, then determine what regulatory solution will actually solve it, if such a solution exists at all, and if the cost of the “fix” is less than the problem. Industry-specific regulation must be limited to articulable public safety concerns.

Do all that, and weed regulators and the politicians who hire and oversee them will feel ignored and unloved by grifters both foreign and domestic. And as a bonus, the marijuana industry will be healthier to boot.

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at orrin@orrinjohnson.com.

Russian businessman with ties to group that donated to Laxalt set up business in Vegas

A photo of Igor Fruman, Adam Laxalt and Lev Parnas

A Russian businessman with ties to a man indicted earlier this month as part of a scheme to open a pot dispensary and influence Nevada politics set up a company in the state earlier this year.

Andrey Muraviev, who runs a Moscow-based fund and invested in the Russian version of PayPal, registered a Nevada business called Inter Reserve Enterprises LLC in March. The other officer in the company is Dmitry Kasatov, who also was part of the Russian PayPal company called Qiwi and who on that same day, March 21, set up two other Nevada businesses, Allied Platforms and GGLV LLC.

So, as Butch so often said to Sundance: Who are these guys?

Muraviev is linked to California’s cannabis king, Garib Karapetyan, as The Sacramento Bee pointed out today. But he also has been in business with Andrey Kukushkin, who was indicted along with three other men and who set up another business in Nevada.

Kukushkin, you may recall, attended an Adam Laxalt for governor fundraiser and said, according to the indictment, that he met with several Nevada officials. This was part of an alleged scheme to get into the pot business in Nevada and buy influence -- they had hopes Laxalt would "green-light" their dispensary after they missed a deadline. But best laid plans: Laxalt lost.

Here’s where this gets really interesting. 

Remember that there is an unnamed foreign national in the indictment, who is believed to have provided the source money for the illegal maximum ($10,000) campaign contributions to Laxalt and Wes Duncan, who was running for attorney general, from Igor Fruman, indicted along with Kukushkin.

Mother Jones’ David Corn, doing some dot-connecting 10 days ago and noting Muraviev’s interest in the pot business, speculated that he might be the one:

This Russian, who would be part of their legal marijuana venture, sent $1 million from overseas accounts to Fruman that was to be used for contributions to federal and state candidates in Nevada and other states, according to the indictment. It’s illegal for a foreigner to funnel donations to US candidates. 

It’s a reasonable guess considering all of these relationships.

As Corn wryly concluded: Perhaps Kukushkin has worked with more than one wealthy Russian businessman eager to enter the American pot market.

There’s one more connection I found, too. Muraviev’s partner in Russia and Nevada, Kasatov, listed Lawrence Michelson as the resident agent for his company, GGLV. Who is Michelson? He, too, is interested in the pot business in California

Too many coincidences? You think?

It’s impossible to tell what these businesses were set up to do or who else might be involved because they are LLCs, with very little available information.

But Inter Reserve Enterprises has a website and when I called the number on the site, I was transferred to man who had what sounded like a heavy Russian accent. I asked a series of questions to which he replied: “No comment. I’m sorry. I cannot help you.”

The site purports to be a business and tax planning enterprise.

As for GGLV LLC, on Kastov’s LinkedIn page, he lists himself as CEO since last year and describes the business as “Agtech & Innovations.”

I still wonder whether the feds are making any attempt to connect these Nevada dots involving the indicted men and their associates, all of them tangentially connected to the California pot business. In an unrelated note, The Bee reported this week that the state’s lax controls have resulted in the FBI stepping in to investigate pot owners and whether they bribed officials.

Video connects the dots on Laxalt's interaction with indicted Giuliani pals

Photo of Igor Fruman, Adam Laxalt and Lev Parnas.

So far, Adam Laxalt has been Sgt. Schultz on his contacts with two Soviet-born men indicted earlier this month, one who gave him a $10,000 campaign donation.

But thanks to The Wall Street Journal, we now know more about Laxalt’s interactions with Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. The newspaper has posted a video of Parnas’ Instagram account, and the nearly six-minute story has a section about the apparently illegal foreign money donations to then-gubernatorial contender Laxalt and his former aide, Wes Duncan, who was running for attorney general.

I slowed down the video to extract two photos of Laxalt – one at a fundraiser shaking hands with Vice-President Mike Pence and another getting cozy with Parnas and his partner. Fruman later donated $10,000 to Laxalt as part of what the indictment claims was a scheme to “green-light” a pot dispensary.

A Laxalt spokesman told the Review-Journal, which happens to be owned by the same man (Sheldon Adelson) who runs the place where Laxalt was pictured with the two men: Fruman “came to a Las Vegas fundraiser. Adam doesn’t know the man.”

(That later had an addendum tacked on by another Laxalt spokesman, Robert Uithoven, who gave another Sgt. Schultz statement and said the ex-attorney general “intends to return the donation.” How and when he would return the money to the indicted Fruman is another question.)

We now know, thanks to the video, that Parnas and Fruman were at the Sept. 7, 2018, fundraiser at The Venetian, a no-media event that Parnas memorialized on Instagram: “Supporting Adam Laxalt for governor of the great state of Nevada!!!,” Parnas posted next to the photos he took of Laxalt shaking hands with Pence and someone snapped of Fruman and him next to a smiling Laxalt.

The video connects some dots that were oblique in the indictment.

The indictment talks about the two men and their partners, David Correia and Andrey Kukushkin, and what they were doing around the time of the Venetian fundraiser for Laxalt: “In early September 2018, Parnas, Fruman, Correia, Kukushkin and (the foreign national alleged to have funded the contributions) met in Las Vegas, Nevada, to discuss the Business Venture (the pot dispensary). While in Las Vegas, Parnas, Fruman and Kukushkin attended a political fundraiser for a State candidate in Nevada (Candidate-1).”

So from the Wall Street Journal revelations, we now know what fundraiser they are referring to and for whom. And, more interestingly, we know that Kukushkin, who later claims to have met with Nevada officials, was at that event, too.

The indictment then details a multimillion-dollar plan to funnel foreign money into campaigns and buy political influence: “…the defendants….then used those funds transferred by Foreign National-1, in part, to attempt to gain influence with politicians and candidates.”

The next part is significant: “For example, on or about October 20, 2018, Parnas, Fruman and Kukushkin attended a campaign rally for candidate-1 in Nevada….”

The Wall Street Journal video confirms that Parnas actually traveled to Elko (!) to be at a President Trump rally for Laxalt (and then-Sen. Dean Heller).

Parnas, the video shows, had a V.I.P. badge for that rally. That is, he was a special guest, and I find it hard to believe Laxalt was not briefed about him.

Soon afterwards, the supposedly illegal donations to Laxalt and Duncan were made – just days before the election. The timing was especially important, the indictment implies, because they realized they had missed the application for a dispensary license “unless we change the rules.” And this: They “noted that they needed a particular Nevada state official, the position for which Candidate-1 (Laxalt) was running, to green-light to implement this.”

Kukushkin, according to the indictment, later said he was “present at all the scheduled meetings with officials in Nevada.”

Did that include Laxalt? We still don’t know, and we reached out to no avail to Team Schultz.

Laxalt may indeed have no memory of these two men who were trying to ingratiate themselves to him, hoping he would become governor so he would green-light their pot business. I’m sure he took pictures with lots of people smiling into the camera, and I’m sure some of them were willing to attend events in Las Vegas and Elko.

Laxalt also may have no idea who Fruman was when he accepted $10,000 – candidates accept many, many donations, although you would think they would vet their max contributors, right? And didn’t Laxalt’s finely attuned prosecutor’s antenna get suspicious at all during this time?

Are we to believe these two fine fellows who were Giuliani pals just happened to want to be seen with Laxalt and give him a max donation? And neither Laxalt nor anyone close to him ever met with any of the four indicted men to talk about what they wanted, as the scheme was well on its way last fall, according to the indictment?

You would have to be Sgt. Schultz to not believe that someone might think a cash-rich business such as the pot industry is ripe for money laundering. I wonder if the feds here are sniffing around, although the U.S. attorney, Nick Trutanich, used to be Laxalt’s right-hand and might have to remove himself from any investigation.

The irony here, as reporter Chris Kudalis pointed out, is that Laxalt was opposed to pot legalization. Even after it was legalized, he made things difficult. So what would make these guys think a prospective governor could be persuaded to help them? Did they think he was an easily influenced pawn? And what would make them think that?

From a political perspective, Laxalt, who seems to be trying to keep his name alive for a future bid, will be haunted by the photo with Parnas and Fruman. His prospective opponents must be salivating.

But what do I know? I know nothing.

Shadowy Ukraine intrigue? Another day at the office in Nevada pot business

Marijuana plants

Few who are trying to keep up with the plot twists in the state’s nascent marijuana industry were surprised when embattled Nevada Department of Taxation official Jorge Pupo was placed on leave last month and then later terminated.

Pupo’s cozy relationships with industry representatives courted controversy. No reason was given for the forced leave, but then none was needed. Any protests aside, I suspect we haven’t heard the last of Pupo’s questionable behavior.

The state’s cockeyed marijuana dispensary licensing process culminated in September 2018 with a disproportionate number of applications being approved for some companies at the expense of others. It’s not only drawn intense litigation from disappointed applicants, but also has redoubled Gov. Steve Sisolak’s call for greater regulation of the state’s new tax revenue gold mine.

The governor is onto something. But to paraphrase Roy Scheider in “Jaws,” I think Sisolak’s going to need a bigger boat. Although industry representatives and state officials surely must hope the Pupo mess remains a self-contained scandal, in reality it calls into question the whole licensing process.

Last week, it got weirder with the revelation that the four men charged with federal campaign violations in connection with President Donald Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani and the Ukraine impeachment investigation were pumping cash into Nevada politics in hopes of winning a lucrative marijuana dispensary license. In addition to fomenting conspiracy theories for Giuliani and Trump, Lev Parnas, Igor Fruman, David Correia and Andrey Kukushkin in early September 2018 met in Las Vegas with an unnamed foreign national to discuss a “business venture.” “While in Las Vegas, Parnas, Fruman, Correia, Kukushkin also attended a fundraiser for a state candidate in Nevada,” the indictment states.

An unnamed foreigner wired $500,000 from an overseas bank account through New York to the defendants, who used the money for contributions to two Nevada state political candidates, according to the indictment. Although not identified in the charging document, former gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt and fellow Republican attorney general candidate Wesley Duncan have been identified as the candidates involved. Both men, who lost their elections, have said they will return the donations — presumably not to the Fruman-Parnas-Correia-Kukushkin defense fund.

At this point, it begs the obvious to say that Nevada wasn’t prepared to regulate the marijuana industry it rushed to create. And playing catch-up won’t be easy. Although some companies are locally owned, others have far more complex histories.

Take Massachusetts-based Curaleaf Holdings, for instance. Although it failed to gain much interest in March, Curaleaf agreed to purchase Nevada’s Acres Cannabis for $70 million in cash and stock. A vertically integrated operation that has emerged as an industry giant in multiple states, Curaleaf is publicly traded on Toronto’s Canadian Stock Exchange, which marijuana industry insiders commonly refer to as the “Cannabis Stock Exchange” because of its popularity with pot business public offerings.

These days Curaleaf’s website touts its partnership with Blackjack Collective, but Nevada is only part of the what the company calls its “aggressive expansion West.” In July, Curaleaf grew even more and emerged as the undeniable leader when it agreed to pay approximately $900 million for privately held GR Companies. As of July, its 19-state reach included 68 dispensary locations and 131 licenses. That’s enormous — and expanding. By anyone’s measure, Curaleaf is a rip-roaring success. So it’s only natural that it would seek to expand into the lucrative Nevada market, right?

But if you’re looking for an intriguing business back story, look no further than Curaleaf and its “Deep Russian Roots,” as Barron’s described it. The company is the creation of Russian-heritage billionaires who are American citizens. Its chairman is Boris Jordan, a banking success who was integrally involved in Russia’s complicated capitalist transition. His major investment partner is Andrei Blokh, well known as a former business associate of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.

Abramovich is chronicled in the popular press as the owner of England’s Chelsea Football Club and for his behemoth “superyachts.” In some intelligence circles, Abramovich has made news for his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his friendly association with President Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner.

For his part, Blokh grew immensely wealthy in Abramovich-tied oil deals and, of all things, milk products. His consolidation of the Russian dairy industry under the Unimilk umbrella and its subsequent 2010 sale in to Danone made him wealthy beyond most imaginations.

With a net worth of more than $12 billion, Abramovich can afford to miss an investment or two. When British officials declined to renew his investor’s visa in 2018, there was wide speculation that his proximity to Putin was behind it. Abramovich quickly gained citizenship in Israel.

In an interview with Barron’s, Jordan was emphatic: Blokh’s old friendship aside, Abramovich has nothing to do with the company. Curaleaf remains a remarkable success story with roots stretching from Russia all the way to Las Vegas.

It’s a good thing the company is so legitimate.

At this point, can Nevada be trusted to conduct a comprehensive background check?

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