What about the ethics of the Ethics Commission?

Chuck Gardner

Las Vegas Review Journal
October 26, 1997

    Under Nevada law, the state attorney general "is the legal adviser to the commission" on ethics. The A.G. advises the commission and prepares its final findings and conclusions. The job is to fairly and objectively advise the commission on the law. It is a special sort of duty that mixes the executive and judicial branches of government. Unlike judges, commissioners are not trained in the law. The attorney general provides this otherwise missing piece of the judicial puzzle.

    It appears, however, that Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa has assigned deputy Louis Ling, an intelligent and articulate individual, to act, not just as legal counsel, but as the commission's public relations spokesman and possibly even seventh member. The assignment includes public comment on the evidence at all stages of the proceedings, public statements as to how the inquiries should be conducted, communication of the concerns of the commission members, and even suggestions of recall elections.

     Whether speaking for the commission or for the Attorney General, Mr. Ling frequently comments on the evidence before it's even all in, according to media accounts. In an Oct. 1 Review-Journal story, Ling is quoted as saying, "Facts appeared at the hearing that raised the question of nest feathering."  An Oct. 4 Review-Journal account quotes him as saying, "What we got was one very narrow type of presentation," and notes that "Ling said Atkinson Gates gave the impression that Nigro alone is conducting dealings for the business."  In a Review-Journal report published Oct. 10, he states, "There's certainly a question about whether she properly followed the abstention and disclosure procedures."

     He comments on the evidence after it's in, but before a decision is made. "We developed a large record," a May 27 story quotes him as saying.

    He adds insult to injury when the case is over. "This is one of the more serious violations we've ever seen," he said in an April 29 Review-Journal account, which also quotes him as saying, "His visits to the strip clubs are just examples of his attitude toward the public he served."

    He acts as the spokesman for what the commission plans to do. In an Oct. 1 Review-Journal story he said, "What we would be investigating is whether Mr. Bunker or Mr. Kaplan, while they were employed by the county, sat down with Mr. Aston and said, 'I'm going out to the private sector, can you give me a contract?'"  On Oct. 10, his statement to the Review-Journal is, "We'll be looking at whether she made material misrepresentations to us."  An Oct. 12 account reports that "Ling said the board also will discuss if it should investigate whether Atkinson Gates violated ethics laws by voting Aug. 19 to give two concessions at McCarran International Airport to a political consultant..."  On Oct. 16, the Review-Journal reported that "Louis Ling, the deputy attorney general who represents the ethics board, said commissioners also planned to discuss whether Atkinson Gates may have perjured herself in sworn testimony Sept. 26 about her company."

    He acts as the spokesman when the commission doesn't want to tell us what it plans to do. "All I can say is there will be several matters discussed on the 13th and 14th. And we won't be able to talk about them for now," Ling is quoted on Oct. 16.

    He tells us what the commission "may want to know" and what seems to him to be a contradiction. From an Oct. 10 Review-Journal account: "Members may want to know why Atkinson Gates' written communications and testimony before them seem to contradict statements made in the news media made by several casino executives and by the former attorney to the County Commission, Ling said."

    He communicates the concerns of the panel members. An Oct. 12 story states, "Louis Ling, the deputy attorney general who represents the panel, said the six ethics commissioners have concerns 'about whether she made material misrepresentations' to them."

    He reveals how the ethics commission will render its opinion. "We're treating this all as one matter, so we're going to render one opinion." (Oct. 7)

    He has even suggested a recall election. "He added that the matter may ultimately go to the voters in a recall election," an April 26 Review-Journal story reports.

    Only one of these public statements was made in the lawful course of duty as legal adviser to the commission on ethics - the one where he declined to discuss anything. The extracurricular statements raise questions about the ethics of the ethics commission, the ethics of the attorney general, and the integrity of all ethics proceedings so far conducted. As a judicial body, the ethics commission cannot publicly comment on the evidence in proceedings before it. The commission appears to be doing this on a regular basis through its designated spokesman. Whether the commission is actively participating is unclear. It is, at least so far, letting it happen without a whimper.

    Should an ethics complaint be filed against the attorney general, other legal counsel can normally be substituted, but the situation long ago ceased to be normal when the attorney general created and filled the extra-legal position of public relations officer for the ethics commission. Using her deputy, under the auspices of ethics commission investigations, to publicly comment on the evidence against her rivals and suggest recall elections would be an abuse of office, but the arrangement itself creates a sphere of influence that violates both the spirit and the letter of the law.

    Every case where the Office of the Attorney General has publicly commented on the evidence - and this would appear to be just about all of them in 1997 - whether as legal adviser or as public spokesperson, has been indelibly tainted.