Posts Tagged ‘Ethics Commission’

State Lawmakers OK $65K For Ethics Commission To Hire Staff To Reduce Backlog Of Unpublished Opinions

By Sean Whaley | 4:29 pm December 15th, 2011

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request from the state Ethics Commission to hire a full-time attorney for six months to reduce a two-year backlog of unpublished opinions.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.

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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.”

 

State Board OKs $65K For Ethics Commission To Hire Staff To Reduce Backlog Of Unpublished Opinions

By Sean Whaley | 2:20 pm December 13th, 2011

CARSON CITY – A state board today approved a $65,000 request from the state Ethics Commission to hire an attorney to help reduce a two-year backlog of unpublished opinions.

The Board of Examiners, made up of Gov. Brian Sandoval, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and Secretary of State Ross Miller, approved the request submitted by Caren Jenkins, executive director of the state Ethics Commission.

Caren Jenkins, executive director of the state Ethics Commission, spoke at the Board of Examiners meeting today. / Photo: Nevada News Bureau.

The request to tap a legislative contingency fund to pay the salary of an attorney for six months must now be approved by the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee, which meets Thursday.

“I know that it’s unusual to fund a position at this level, but I fear that without immediate attention to the backlog we’ll never catch up,” Jenkins told the board.

The Ethics Commission is adding to the backlog as it hears and decides more cases, she said. There are approximately 60 opinions that need to be written.

The emphasis for the commission has been hearing matters and rendering decisions, Jenkins said. The backlog has been an issue for some time, but has recently hit a critical stage, she said.

The commission sought two additional positions from the 2011 Legislature but the request was not funded due to other demands on scarce tax revenues.

Gov. Brian Sandoval asked if there systemic issues with the operation of the commission that could help reduce the backlog.

Jenkins said such changes are being considered. But even with the implementation of successful streamlining efforts, the agency will not be able to catch up with the backlog, she said. The commission has a meeting set for Wednesday where the issue will come up for further discussion, Jenkins said.

“It’s not just money, I guess is the bottom line,” Sandoval said. “I’m going to vote to support this today but I would like to see some demonstration by the commission that it is seeking to improve its efficiencies and efficacy as well.”

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Audio clips:

Caren Jenkins, executive director of the state Ethics Commission, says that without the funding, the backlog may never be addressed:

121311Jenkins :11 never catch up.”

Gov. Brian Sandoval says the issue isn’t just money but creating efficiencies as well:

121311Sandoval :29 efficacy as well.”

State Ethics Commission Seeks $65K To Hire Staff To Reduce Backlog Of Unpublished Opinions

By Sean Whaley | 5:34 pm December 7th, 2011

CARSON CITY – Faced with a two-year backlog of unpublished opinions, the state Ethics Commission is seeking $65,000 from a contingency fund to hire an attorney to help deal with the situation.

Photo by Tom Ventura via Flickr.

The request for funding from the Legislature’s Interim Finance Contingency Fund would allow the commission to contract with a temporary full-time attorney for six months beginning in January 2012 to help in getting the backlog of opinions written and published.

The funding request will first go to the state Board of Examiners on Tuesday. If approved by the board, made up of Gov. Brian Sandoval, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and Secretary of State Ross Miller, the request will be considered by the Interim Finance Committee at its Dec. 15 meeting.

Caren Jenkins, executive director of the state Ethics Commission, reported the backlog at an Ethics Commission meeting earlier this year. In an interview with the Nevada News Bureau in November, Jenkins said the agency has fallen behind in issuing written opinions because of a major increase in public officials seeking guidance.

There were 67 requests for opinions in 2004, and she expects 172 this year. Jenkins said she has one investigator for the entire state who must review each case.

“The demands on our staff have become almost laughable,” she said in the interview. “We have three-times the workload for when they thought we needed five full-time staffers.”

As a result, the publishing of its formal opinions in the cases has fallen about two years behind with 50 opinions yet to be written, Jenkins said.

The agency sought two new positions in the 2011 session to help address the backlog, but the Legislature did not approve them, given all the other critical demands on the budget, she said.

The opinions, when written, are published on the agency’s website to provide guidance for others, Jenkins said.

The inability of the commission staff to get the opinions written has had real word consequences.

Former Lyon County Manger Dennis Stark, who appeared before the commission on an ethics matter in November 2010 and January 2011, was still waiting for a published order in his case when interviewed by the NNB last month.

Without it, Stark said he has been unable to pursue a court appeal on the one charge for which he was found to have violated state ethics laws. With no final record of the hearing, Stark, who called the one infraction minor and the result of fabricated testimony, said he cannot successfully seek employment either.

Investigation Of Former Nevada Nuclear Projects Chief Remains Unresolved After Two Years

By Sean Whaley | 8:12 am October 7th, 2010

CARSON CITY – An investigation into the conduct of the former executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, sought by a state lawmaker after questions were raised about salary increases he awarded himself on the job, remains unresolved after more than two years.

A Nevada News Bureau public records request sent to the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office generated a brief response saying the matter regarding Bob Loux was still under investigation and no information was available for release.

Assemblywoman Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, asked the Nevada Attorney General’s office on Sept. 11, 2008, for an investigation into Loux’s actions for “malfeasance in office and possible criminal activity.”

Due to a conflict, the attorney general’s office asked Washoe County Sheriff Mike Haley to look into Gansert’s concerns.

No results of any investigation have yet been reported by Haley’s office.

Gansert said she does not know why an investigation is taking so long but that it needs to be concluded in an effort to get the salary increases Loux awarded himself repaid to taxpayers.

“It is important that the taxpayers, at the minimum, get their money back,” she said.

Loux gave himself raises that were unauthorized, Gansert said.

The excess salary has not been returned to the state, although Loux’s retirement benefits were adjusted downward to account for the unauthorized pay hikes, she said.

Loux won a state Ethics Commission ruling on the matter, but Gansert said that ruling was based on a technicality.

Loux could not be reached for comment.

Gov. Jim Gibbons called in September 2008 for Loux’s resignation after learning of the salary overpayments, calling the level of mismanagement at the office “severe.” Gibbons said the salary overpayments, which went to other officials in the office as well, came to light when Loux sought funds to cover a shortfall in his budget.

Loux actually served at the pleasure of the Commission on Nuclear Projects, which accepted his resignation in September 2008.

Asked for a comment on the length of the Loux investigation, Gibbons said: “These are the types of situations that erode the public’s confidence in government. The progress of this matter should have been closely monitored by the attorney general to make sure the interests of the people of Nevada are protected.”

Gibbons’ comment prompted a response from Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto: “Unfortunately, the governor continues to want to play politics with this issue and ignore the facts. Based upon an internal conflict in my office, the case was referred out of my office to an independent law enforcement agency for investigation to protect the integrity of the legal process and the public’s confidence in that process. The very nature of the conflict requires that my office have no further involvement in the case.”

The salary issue went to the state Ethics Commission in March of 2009 based on a complaint also filed by Gansert. The commission ruled 3-2 that because Loux’s salary was actually set by the governor, the allegation he violated ethics laws by exceeding the legislatively approved salary for his office was not at issue.

Loux’s response to the ethics inquiry was that he acted within his authority and responsibility.

Information provided to Ethics Commission staff disclosed that the governor sets the salaries of the commission employees, not the executive director, and that they can be set at any level as long as the total amount in the salary budget category for the agency is not exceeded.

The two dissenting commissioners said the Legislature did set Loux’s salary by reviewing and approving the governor’s recommended budget for the office. They said the question of whether he violated the ethics laws should have been reviewed.

Gansert said the Ethics Commission decision never got to the issue of whether Loux gave himself unauthorized raises at taxpayer expense in violation of the state ethics laws.

According to an Ethics Commission investigator’s report approved Nov. 7, 2008, Loux’s salary was set by the Legislature at $104,497 in 2006 but he was paid $120,537 that year. His salary was set at $108,677 in 2007 but he was paid $125,355. He was authorized a salary of $114,088 in 2008 but received $145,718.

Gansert said the excess pay should be returned by Loux.