Slap on wrist possible, despite district trustees’ other ethics issues
LAS VEGAS — Two key witnesses expected earlier to testify in the ethics investigation of Clark County School District Board President Carolyn Edwards have been told by the Nevada Ethics Commission that they don’t need to.
The reason? According to the commission’s executive director, their testimony is no longer needed, since Edwards is planning to stipulate to the charges against her.
She thus joins the other recent CCSD subject of ethics complaints, district lobbyist Joyce Haldeman, already in settlement talks with the ethics panel.
Both witnesses tell Nevada Journal that ethics officials informed them, via email, that the scheduled Nov. 20 evidentiary hearing in this matter had been canceled.
Edwards came under investigation by the ethics commission when a complaint was filed earlier this year alleging she violated Nevada Ethics in Government laws last October when she directed her secretary to send out a blast email to the trustees’ confidential email list of school-district parents.
The email — advocating support of the 2012 Ballot Question 2, for a new property tax sought by CCSD — asked parents to volunteer in the political campaign to impose the tax. The list — of numerous parents and political constituents — had been compiled over multiple years by the school district, using taxpayer time and other resources.
State law, specifically NRS 281A.520, prohibits any public officer or employee “from requesting or otherwise causing a governmental entity to incur an expense or make an expenditure to support or oppose a ballot question or candidate…”
Caren Cafferata-Jenkins, executive director of the Nevada Commission on Ethics, confirmed late Monday that the evidence hearing has been canceled in light of settlement negotiations. She anticipates that a stipulation agreement will be proposed to the Commission at the Nov. 20 meeting, though nothing has yet been finalized.
“The Commission will address the proposed stipulation in an open session,” explained Cafferata-Jenkins, “and will move to adopt, amend (for the subject’s consideration) or reject the proposal altogether. Deliberations and a vote on the motion will take place in open session.”
School District officials declined to comment on the move towards settlement, saying that because the litigation is still ongoing , they will not release any information until it is settled.
Other issues, however, may complicate the current proceeding against Edwards. One raises the question of whether or not most CCSD school trustees are chronically indifferent to state ethics laws.
Because the formal and discretionary powers of state and local officials are so great — and because their jobs inherently present them with temptations to cut ethical corners for personal, political or financial profit — state law requires that Nevada public officers read and keep themselves abreast of the state’s ethics laws.
Thus, NRS 281A.500 requires every public officer to acknowledge that the public officer “has received, read and understands the statutory ethical standards” and “has a responsibility to inform himself or herself of any amendments to the statutory ethical standards as soon as reasonably practicable after each session of the Legislature.”
The law also requires that acknowledgments must be executed on a form prescribed by the Ethics Commission and must be filed on or before Jan. 15 of the year following the public officer’s election. Appointed officers must file on or before the 30th day following the date on which the public officer takes office.
Public records on file with Nevada’s Commission on Ethics reveal that with the exception of Trustee Erin Cranor, no CCSD school board trustee, including school board President Edwards, has an ethics acknowledgement on file with the Ethics Commission, as far back as Jan. 1, 2007. Cranor has three such acknowledgements on file — one for her role as CCSD trustee and two for her position on the state P-16 Council.
“I don't remember whether someone else reminded me or it was just on my to-do list at the time,” said Cranor, in response to an email enquiry this morning. No other trustee responded by time of publication.
The move to settle the complaint against the school board president came as a surprise to Michael Silbergleid, who filed the complaint against Edwards.
He says the district has already gone to remarkable lengths to protect Edwards, even attempting to subpoena his personal email correspondence.
Nevada Ethics Commission Chairman Paul H. Lamboley last month denied that subpoena request. “Any relevant credibility concerns can be answered through witness testimony,” said Lamboley in his Oct. 14 order.
The school district has “wasted a lot of taxpayer money with their high-priced lawyer trying every way possible to get Edwards off,” said Silbergleid, “when, in the end, they did exactly what they should have done from day one: a stipulated agreement.”
Despite employing nine staff attorneys and various secretaries and paralegals, school officials hired the premier ethics defense law firm in Nevada — that of state Sen. Mark Hutchison — to defend Edwards.
According to the engagement letter between CCSD and the Hutchison & Steffen law offices, taxpayers are paying the senator’s billing rate of $330 per hour.
Based on that agreement, Nevada Journal estimates that a recent motion hearing for disposition, whereby Hutchison and Jacob Reynolds — another H&S attorney also assigned to the Edwards case — both appeared before the Commission, cost taxpayers anywhere between $590 and $880 an hour — not to include the many billable hours it took to research and draft the motion and legal arguments.
The law firm has declined multiple requests for Reynolds’ billing rate. However, the agreement specifies that the rate for other attorneys in the office ranges between $240 and $550 an hour.
Also up for possible consideration at the Nov. 20 meeting is a stipulation settlement in a related ethics case against Joyce Haldeman, CCSD’s associate superintendent of community and government relations.
In that case, says Cafferata-Jenkins, there has always been an intent to settle. However, the case was put on the back-burner pending the proceedings against Edwards.
Haldeman came under fire after admitting the district used CCSD staff, vehicles and warehouses to transport and store “yes on 2” campaign materials for the School Improvement Committee PAC. Haldeman justified assisting the political action committee on the grounds that “the plan” was to have the PAC reimburse the school district for its costs.
There is no reimbursement exception in NRS 281A.520.
While she was not at liberty to discuss what the public can expect from the settlement agreements, Cafferata-Jenkins did say the Commission must consider new ethics provisions enacted this year when weighing these cases.
Under the new provisions, initiated by a bill of which Hutchison was a primary sponsor, Haldeman could evade sanctions, even if she stipulates her actions violated ethics laws. That’s because the new law mandates that, in determining whether a violation is a willful violation along with the amount of any civil penalty to be imposed, the Commission “shall consider,” in relevant part, “any restitution or reimbursement paid to parties affected by the violation.”
Edwards, too, will receive the same mitigating factors analysis. In her case, Hutchison has already laid the foundation for a “non-willful” finding, arguing that Edwards had a “mandated” duty to advocate for the proposed new tax, notwithstanding the ethics law, which he argued conflicts with that duty.
By entering into stipulated agreements, Edwards and Haldeman avoid having the evidence compiled against them opened to public scrutiny. Moreover, stipulation agreements contain “findings of fact,” which, however, are agreed-upon facts, not proven facts.
The public, Cafferata-Jenkins indicated, should not expect to review the proposed agreements prior to the hearings, since stipulation agreements are still considered part of on-going settlement discussions.
In the past, the Ethics Commission has highlighted other concerns regarding CCSD trustee actions.
In 2010, unable to justify a housing allowance for former CCSD superintendent Dwight Jones, the trustees amended his contract to allow the Clark County Public Education Foundation to reimburse him up to $5,000 a month for from six to eight months for housing or relocation costs.
The Commission later said that the “artifice“ of the Board using “foundations or other similar organizations to engage public officers and employees in commitments for economic opportunities is poor policy and contrary to the intent of the Ethics Law to encourage public officers and employees to maintain the public trust.” (Emphasis added.)
However, trustees then acted similarly weeks later — unanimously approving an employment contract for Pedro Martinez as deputy superintendent that allowed a private foundation to donate $22,000 to the school district to cover, over an eight-month period, Martinez relocation expenses from Washoe County.
The Ethics Commission’s Cafferata-Jenkins says the hearings on the stipulated agreements will include public comment and the public is welcome to come speak on the matters.
The open session is anticipated to take place at 1:00 p.m. on Nov. 20, 2013.
UPDATE (11/5/2013 2:35 pm): Kirsten Searer, chief of staff and external relations for CCSD, contacted Nevada Journal to say that district General Counsel Carlos McDade is looking into the ethics acknowledgement issue.
UPDATE (11/13/2013): Mary Ann Peterson, deputy district attorney and legal representative to the school board, contacted Nevada Journal yesterday to advise that all CCSD Trustees have filed their ethics acknowledgments and are now in compliance with statute.