State Lawmakers OK $65K For Ethics Commission To Hire Staff To Reduce Backlog Of Unpublished Opinions

CARSON CITY – The Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee today approved a funding request from the state Ethics Commission to hire a full-time attorney for six months to reduce a two-year backlog of unpublished opinions.

The request for $65,000 from the Legislature’s contingency fund provoked little comment from the panel, which is made up of the Assembly Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees.

The funding will allow the commission to catch up on about 60 ethics matters in which decisions have been rendered but the opinions have yet to be published.

Ethics Commission Chairman Erik Beyer told lawmakers that the funding is not the complete answer to the workload issues facing the panel.

Ethics Commission Chairman Erik Beyer testifies before lawmakers today as commission Executive Director Caren Jenkins looks on. / Photo: Nevada News Bureau

“We also need to provide direction for our staff to be more efficient in putting out opinions,” he said. “We have discussed this in our commission meetings on several occasions and we have a subcommittee that has reviewed various ways in which we can efficiently get our opinions out to the public.”

Caren Jenkins, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said the panel is facing many more requests for opinions than in past years. Because the emphasis has been on hearing and ruling on cases, the publishing of the opinions has fallen behind, she said.

The cases are also becoming increasingly complex, and attorneys now are frequently brought into the process by those facing hearings, Jenkins said.

Without some assistance, the backlog will not likely be addressed anytime soon, potentially creating due process delays that could become a liability for the state, she said.

“The backlog is not getting caught up, it is simply being added to with the current load,” Jenkins said. “We have a 300 percent increase in our caseload since the number of employees of the commission was increased in 2005.

“I don’t think it’s good business, and no court would be allowed to be two years behind in issuing its opinions without a huge outcry,” she said. “And the Commission on Ethics, I hope, never finds itself in this circumstance again.”

While not mentioning him by name, Jenkins referred to the case of former Lyon County Manger Dennis Stark, who appeared before the commission on an ethics matter in November 2010 and January 2011, and who is still waiting for a published order in his case. Stark was found to have committed one ethics violation.

In a Nevada News Bureau story highlighting his case, Stark said he wants to appeal the Ethics Commission decision but cannot do so without the published opinion. Not having a resolution to his case has made it difficult for him to find a new job, he said.

Jenkins said that while the temporary staff is needed, the commission is looking at ways to streamline its processes to improve efficiencies without additional funding. The commission is not required to issue published opinions in all cases, and it may be time to change that practice, she said.

Opinions are only required in decisions that go against the individual appearing before the commission, Jenkins said.

Even so the commission may still seek an additional staff attorney when it comes to the Legislature in 2013, she said.


Audio clips:

Ethics Commission Chairman Erik Beyer says the panel is looking at ways to become more efficient:

121511Beyer :28 to the public.”

Caren Jenkins, executive director of the Ethics Commission says the backlog is not getting caught up:

121511Jenkins1 :15 increased in 2005.”

Jenkins says the cases that come to the commission are increasingly complex:

121511Jenkins2 :09 they’re lawyering up.”

Jenkins says it’s not good business to be so far behind in issuing its opinions:

121511Jenkins3 :14 this circumstance again.”