Has Las Vegas water authority been playing fast and loose with the facts about its ranch property?

A lawsuit filed in Clark County district court this past week resurrects allegations that the Southern Nevada Water Authority has been lying to ratepayers about the profitability of a string of ranches the water district purchased several years ago in Lincoln and White Pine counties in order to acquire their water rights for potential piping to Las Vegas.

According to Courthouse News Service, “retired” SNWA controller Randall Buie has sued the water district, saying he was forced out for refusing to falsify reports that would make it appear the seven ranches were profitable when they were actually losing money.

Spring Valley ranch land (SNWA photo)

In 2007 and 2008 SNWA bought 23,000 acres of ranches for a reported $80 million, well above market value at the time, according to 2013 reports by KLAS-TV, Channel 8 investigative reporter George Knapp.

According to minutes from a 2012 SNWA board of directors meeting, the district was claiming the ranches had earned an annual profit of $260,000, but both the lawsuit and a whistleblower interviewed by Knapp claim otherwise.

Buie’s complaint alleges the ranches were losing $2 million a year. “From the moment they were purchased, said ranches have been unprofitable, contrary to representations by defendants to the board of directors, ratepayers, and the media,” Buie is quoted as saying.

Buie claims he was “harassed and bullied into assisting in creating special ranch reports” that were false.

According to Knapp’s source, SNWA employee Debra Rivero, the ranches’ expenses increased from $500,000 in 2007 to $850,000 in 2012. She told Knapp SNWA reported it sold $1 million worth of hay, but failed to account for expenses such as fertilizer, irrigation equipment and employee time. She also claimed she was harassed and threatened with a cattle prod.

Buie’s suit says he told his employers in 2012 he would no longer produce false reports, and a year later he was told he would no longer be controller and was given the choice of demotion or retiring. He retired in March 2014. The suit accuses SNWA of “breach of contract, breach of faith, retaliation, constructive discharge, wrongful termination, breach of contract and negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress,” according to Courthouse News Service.

Buie’s attorney is listed as longtime Las Vegas attorney Matthew Callister, a former Las Vegas City Councilman.

So far the courts have blocked the water authority’s efforts to pipe rural groundwater to Las Vegas. Should the project be built, it is estimated Las Vegas water rates would triple and the groundwater where the ranches are located would dry up.

 

 

It is long past time to reinstate the Fourth Amendment guarantee to be free of warrantless searches and seizures

Civil asset forfeiture has turned into a fundraising scam for federal and local law enforcement agencies, who use the excuse that seized cash, cars and homes are the product of suspected criminal endeavors and thus forfeitable to the government, usually the agency doing the seizing.

It is happening in jurisdictions all across the nation and here in Nevada. A year ago a deputy in Humboldt County pulled over a California tourist in a rental car and grabbed $50,000 in cash that the tourist said he won in a casino. The tourist sued and eventually got his cash back.

Deputy with K-9 and $50,000 in seized cash.

The day after that tourist’s money was seized, Humboldt County Sheriff Ed Kilgore sent out a news release along with a photo of the deputy posing with the cash and a police dog. “This cash would have been used to purchase illegal drugs and now will benefit Humboldt County with training and equipment,” the release boasted. “Great job.”

According to a dashcam recording, the tourist asked what reason he was being searched, and the deputy replied, “Because I’m talking to you … well, no, I don’t have to explain that to you. I’m not going to explain that to you, but I am gonna put my drug dog on that (pointing to money). If my dog alerts, I’m seizing the money. You can try to get it back but you’re not.”

He also told the tourist, “You’ll burn it up in attorney fees before we give it back to you.”

A couple of months later another man had cash seized by the same deputy.

In Texas a couple of years ago police seized cash from a couple who said they were to use it to buy a car at their destination.

In Massachusetts a motel was seized because drugs had taken place there, though the owners were in no way involved.

In Philadelphia a couple’s home was seized because, unbeknownst to them, their son sold a small quantity of drugs on the front porch.

And you thought the Fourth Amendment guaranteed:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Oh, but it is not a criminal case. No one need ever be arrested. The money and property are the guilty parties until proven innocent, if that is ever possible.

According to a recent Investor’s Business Daily editorial, the Justice Department’s forfeiture fund has gone from $94 million in 1986 to more than $1 billion today.

In Philadelphia, the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit civil liberties law firm, has taken the police to court to try to stop what one judge called state-sanctioned theft.

IJ has three clients, all of whom had their homes seized by police. In each case the police claim the property was used to commit minor drug crimes, none of which involve the actual owners.

“The class-action lawsuit challenges several aspects of Philadelphia’s forfeiture scheme. First, Philadelphia routinely seeks orders authorizing its officials to ‘seize and seal’ homes and other real properties — which they accomplish by throwing people, like Chris Sourovelis and their families, out onto the streets,” IJ reports. “But the city does not provide the families with any notice when it seeks such an order, and the homeowners never get a chance to argue why they should not be evicted before they are thrown out.”

A bill also has been introduced in Congress to reform the law.

The Nevada Legislature should take this matter into its own hands and create a law that prohibits the seizure of private property without proper warrants and reasonable cause. Nevadans should not be forced to hire expensive lawyers and spend years in the courts to prove their property is innocent. It is a matter of due process.