Editorial: Nevada’s own sex scandal needs a full airing

The year 2017 will go down as the year sexual harassment claims erupted — from Hollywood to D.C., from Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey, from senate candidate Roy Moore to Sen. Al Franken.

Lest we forget, this year Nevada had its own sex scandal, but, unlike the others, this one was buried in secrecy and the accused allowed to resign and slink away.

State Sen. Mark Manendo, a Las Vegas Democrat, resigned in July after the taxpayers shelled out $67,125.12 to a law firm to investigate allegations of multiple incidents of inappropriate behavior toward female staffers and lobbyists over a number of years.

Former state Sen. Mark Manendo

Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, a Las Vegas Democrat now running for Nevada attorney general, hired the law firm during the legislative session earlier this year after learning of complaints.

The law firm — after interviewing 58 people, including Manendo — reported in July that Manendo violated the Legislature’s anti-harassment policy on 14 occasions during the 2017 session alone. It also said Manendo tried to interfere with the investigation by trying to get an accuser to recant and attempting to learn the names of other accusers.

In his resignation letter to Gov. Brian Sandoval, Manendo made no mention of the allegations against him. He wrote, “I am grateful for the support, trust, and confidence bestowed upon me over the years by my constituents and colleagues. As my senate term comes to an end, I feel now is the time to step aside and look for new opportunities to serve others.”

When Manendo resigned, the state Senate Democrats put out a press release saying, “Such behavior is not tolerable in any context, let alone by an elected member of the Nevada Senate. It is in the best interests of the institutions of the State Senate and the Nevada Legislature that Senator Manendo resigns from office.”

But the statement also declared, “In order to maintain the privacy and confidentiality promised to the victims and witnesses who spoke to the independent investigator, the investigative report will not be made public.”

Did the Democratic senators purposefully hide the severity of the misdeeds of one of their own that had been going on unaddressed for years?

After news media outlets filed requests for access to the investigative report under the state Public Records Law — which states that, unless exempted by statute, all public records are available for public scrutiny — the Legislative Counsel Bureau (LCB) issued a 37-page document denying those requests.

The LCB explained, strangely enough, “The Public Records Law cannot be applied to the requested materials because the Legislature and its Houses, committees, agencies, caucuses, members, officers and staff do not come within the statutory definition of ‘governmental entity’ as that term is used in the Public Records Law.” The Legislature is not a government entity?

Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, commented to the Las Vegas newspaper at the time, “Their lawyers have built a case for protecting legislators from public scrutiny on the argument that it’s not in the public interest and the Legislature is not a governmental entity. That’s ridiculous. It’s the kind of double-talk used by people to justify all kinds of nonsense.”

Concealing a government-contracted and taxpayer-funded report on the behavior of an elected official is tantamount to obstruction of justice. How are the citizens ever to be able to evaluate the seriousness of the allegations or even whether the the allegations might have risen to the level of warranting criminal prosecution?

How high or low is the bar set for future lawmakers and legislative staffers and lobbyists?

We believe the public deserves a full accounting and that someone running for attorney general should join us in demanding that accountability.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

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Newspaper column: What a difference a single word makes

Though the Nevada Constitution clearly states that any person serving in one branch of government may not perform “any function” of another branch, the Legislature’s lawyers, the Legislative Counsel Bureau (LCB), in 2002 penned a non-binding opinion that stated a person may serve in the Legislature if they do not exercise “any sovereign functions” in another branch.

The definition of the adjective sovereign is: “possessing supreme or ultimate power,” thus the LCB adulteration of the Constitution emasculates the plain language of the Separation of Powers Clause.

The Nevada Supreme Court will have the opportunity to clear up this matter.

State Sen. Heidi Gansert (R-J pix)

The Nevada Policy Research Institute’s (NPRI) legal arm, the Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation (CJCL), this past week filed notice with the state high court that it is appealing the decision of a Carson City judge dismissing its lawsuit against a state senator for violating the Separation of Powers Clause.

“Defying the clear language of the Nevada constitution, Nevada Supreme Court precedent, and a 2004 Attorney General Advisory Opinion by then-attorney-general Governor Brian Sandoval, Judge (James) Russell relied upon a non-binding opinion from the Legislative Counsel Bureau in his ruling from the bench — but we believe the actual words of the state constitution should matter more,” declared CJCL Director Joseph Becker in an email press release.

In that 2004 opinion, Sandoval noted that in the 1957 Supreme Court case cited by the LCB as the basis for its opinion, the court never got to the point of ruling on the Separation of Powers Clause and dismissed it on other grounds.

CJCL sued state Sen. Heidi Gansert because she also is an employee of the University of Nevada, Reno.

“We believe the plain language of the constitution should take precedent over a non-binding LCB opinion, or the preferences of the ruling class,” commented Becker. “And we look forward to the appeals process finally giving further legal clarity on the issue.”

This fight has been going on for years.

There have been years in which nearly half the lawmakers in Carson City were either government employees or the spouses of government employees. In some years every Senate and Assembly leadership post was held by a public employee.

Currently 10 lawmakers hold down state or local government jobs. As such, despite clear conflicts of interest, the lawmakers can vote themselves raises and hand out largesse to their employers — as Gansert did in this past session by voting for 2 percent raises for state employees and a capital expenditure budget that included more than $40 million for a new engineering building at UNR.

In 2004 then-Secretary of State Dean Heller asked the Supreme Court to remedy this skirting of the Constitution, but the court ruled that the Constitution gives lawmakers the power to determine the qualifications of their members. Thus, the judicial branch telling the legislative branch who its members may be violates the Separation of Powers Clause.

Joseph Becker

But the court did allow that “declaratory relief could be sought by someone with a ‘legally protectible interest,’ such as a person seeking the executive branch position held by the legislator.”

Under that guidance, the CJCL first sued state Sen. Mo Denis on behalf of a person who wanted Denis’ $56,000-a-year job at the Public Utilities Commission. A judge declared the case moot when Denis resigned his PUC job.

NPRI’s lawyers came back with a similar suit against Gansert on behalf of a person who wants her public relations job at UNR — a job that yields $210,000 a year in pay and benefits.

Now that the district court judge has ruled that the Separation of Powers Clause is meaningless, it is back to the Supreme Court.

The court should heed the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in a dissenting opinion from 1926, “The doctrine of the separation of powers was adopted by the Convention of 1787, not to promote efficiency but to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power. The purpose was, not to avoid friction, but, by means of the inevitable friction incident to the distribution of the governmental powers among three departments, to save the people from autocracy.”

Or they could turn to a 1967 Nevada Supreme Court opinion that flatly stated, “The division of powers is probably the most important single principle of government declaring and guaranteeing the liberties of the people.”

The words of the state Constitution should not be made meaningless by adding a word plucked out of thin air.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.