Lombardo, Wolfson ignored law in attempt to disqualify judge

Audio recordings detail meeting

By: - December 13, 2021 6:04 am

(Sheriff Joe Lombaro gubernatorial campaign photo; District Attorney Steve Wolfson reelection campaign photo)

Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo enlisted District Attorney Steve Wolfson in an April 2018 effort to remove then-Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Melanie Tobiasson from cases involving Metro’s vice detail after she publicly criticized Metro and the District Attorney, according to audio recordings obtained by the Current of Judicial Discipline Commission interviews with Lombardo and Wolfson. 

In separate interviews with Adam Wygnanski, an investigator hired by the state’s Judicial Discipline Commission, Lombardo and Wolfson confirm meeting with then-Las Vegas Justice Court Chief Judge Joe Bonaventure after Tobiasson publicly alleged that Metro vice officers were protecting certain pimps and the prostitutes they employed, the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation of Metro at the time. 

AUDIO: Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo tells Adam Wygnanski, an investigator for the Judicial Discipline Commission, why he enlisted District Attorney Steve Wolfson in an attempt to remove then-Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Melanie Tobiasson from hearing cases involving Metro’s vice squad.

“Subsequent to all her interviews and her public statements about the corruption associated with the vice detail, I asked Steve Wolfson to go with me to meet with the chief judge in order to have her (Tobiasson) recused from any vice cases in her court because of that bias she publicly displayed,” Lombardo told the JDC’s investigator of his and Wolfson’s meeting with Bonaventure. 

The ex parte attempt by Lombardo and Wolfson to narrow Tobiasson’s docket occurred within a week of her interview on KLAS-TV. 

“It bothered me,” Wolfson told the investigator in 2019, calling Tobiasson’s televised allegations unfounded. “I mean, when people use words like corrupt, I know what corruption is because I’ve been in this community for a long time.”

Tobiasson complained on TV that police ignored information she provided about an alleged pimp named Shane Valentine, who she said attempted to recruit her daughter into prostitution.  Tobiasson said the tip, had it been heeded, may have prevented a 2016 unsolved double murder.  

Valentine eventually became a person of interest in the murders, however, no arrests have been made, according to Metro.  

AUDIO: Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, asked about Metro’s investigation of an unsolved 2016 double murder case, says “part of it is still open.”  Metro has made no arrests in the five-year-old case.

Lombardo told Wygnanski that after learning Metro detectives had “dropped the ball. … I called her (Tobiasson) and brought her in to say ‘You know, what do you have? What do you know? This is what I’ve done as a result of finding out what occurred. Please give us the ability to conduct an investigation,’ which we did. We got Valentine in custody. And I thought that was the end of the chapter.”

“So, her frustration was her passing all this information on and nothing was being done?” Wygnanski asked.  

“But then something was being, something was done. Right?” Lombardo responded to the JDC’s investigator in 2019. 

Shane Valentine (Nevada Dept. of Corrections photo)

Valentine, who was jailed on unrelated charges at the time, has since been released. 

Lombardo, a Republican hopeful for governor, and Wolfson, who is seeking re-election, have refused to publicly discuss the meeting with Bonaventure. 

“I’m not going to talk about that with you,” Wolfson said at the time. 

The recordings reveal their effort to question Tobiasson’s fitness as a judge, including Wolfson’s admission that he informed the executive director of the JDC that Tobiasson was involved in criminal activity when she allegedly intimidated a witness, among other unspecified allegations. Wolfson conceded Metro investigated Tobiasson but did not forward charges to his office for prosecution. 

Tobiasson, who stepped down from the bench earlier this year, did not respond to requests for comment. 

“What exactly was the purpose of your meeting?” Wygnanski asked Wolfson in a separate interview. 

AUDIO: Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson tells Judicial Discipline Commission investigator Adam Wygnanski why Wolfson and Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo sought to have Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Melanie Tobiasson removed from cases involving Metro’s vice squad.

“I had a conversation with the sheriff based upon information that we had learned, and we decided to go see Judge Bonaventure,” Wolfson said, adding Tobiasson was “making certain statements about certain Metro detectives and/or the agency itself, and the District Attorney’s office and perhaps certain things that were extremely critical and extremely derogatory. And we felt that she was biased and should not hear any more criminal cases.”

Wolfson said he and Lombardo “respectfully requested that he (Bonaventure) reassign Judge Tobiasson from hearing criminal cases.”

Nevada law says anyone seeking to disqualify a judge (other than Supreme Court or Court of Appeals) “for actual or implied bias or prejudice must file an affidavit specifying the facts upon which the disqualification is sought.” 

Lombardo and Wolfson, Clark County’s top law enforcement officials, filed no motion and provided no such affidavit.

“What facts and evidence or information was presented to Judge Bonaventure?” Wygnanski asked Wolfson. 

“Exactly what I just said. In other words, we told Judge Bonaventure things that we had heard that Judge Tobiasson was saying — derogatory things, critical things — things that would lead a reasonable person to believe that she can’t be fair, impartial,” Wolfson said. “You want a criminal judge to be fair and impartial. And she was so critical of the main police agency that was bringing cases before her and the prosecutors that were bringing cases before her, we didn’t think that she could any longer be fair and impartial there at that time.”

“Did you guys present any facts or evidence or information to Judge Bonaventure reference this?” Wygnanski asked Lombardo. 

“Nothing more than what was out in the public space, to the best of my recollection,” Lombardo replied. “That’s his role as the chief judge. To manage the judge. It’s nothing different than your supervisor at work.”

Nevada law gives chief judges authority to assign caseloads, but it also requires parties file a motion to request the removal of a judge for bias.  

Boyd Law School Professor Jeffrey Stempel said at the time there’s nothing wrong with challenging a judge as long as it’s done by a legal motion that gives notice to the judge in question.

“That’s crazy,” Stempel said of the ex parte meeting. “The judge who is accused has to be notified.”

“Having these public officials using their power to go completely outside of the normal government process in order to try to influence not just this judge’s career trajectory, but also the outcomes of these particular cases, is incredibly problematic,” Rebecca Gill, director of UNLV’s Women’s Research Institute and an associate professor of political science, said in an interview. “There’s definitely not supposed to be these backchannels that ice out particular judges.” 

AUDIO: Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson denies he and Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo were retaliating against then-Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Melanie Tobiasson by trying to have her removed from cases involving Metro’s vice squad.

“When I spoke with Justice Tobiasson, she said that this was quote, unquote, a secret meeting that you guys had.” Wygnanski told Lombardo. “And you were very unhappy that she found out about this meeting. She claims it was retaliation against her.”

“We asked him to confront her. And so I don’t know how it can be considered a secret,” Lombardo said, adding nothing came of the meeting. “Other than she became aware and nothing was done. And so I don’t know how it can be considered a secret.” 

“How come this took so long to come forward?” Lombardo asked Wygnanski during their exchange in 2019, expressing frustration with the slow pace of the JDC probe. “What was the date of the Channel 8 interview?”

In June 2018, within weeks of Lombardo and Wolfson learning Bonaventure would not remove Tobiasson from cases involving Metro vice, the Judicial Discipline Commission’s executive director, Paul Deyhle, filed a complaint against her regarding her public allegations about law enforcement. He declined to reveal the source.   

The investigator assigned to the complaint, Bob Schmidt, concluded there were no grounds to pursue formal charges against Tobiasson. The JDC later hired Wygnanski to retrace Schmidt’s footsteps, a move Tobiasson characterized in legal motions as forum-shopping.  

“In my opinion, Judge Tobiasson is not the same person today as she was five or 10 years ago,” Wolfson told Wyganski. “Ten years ago she was one of our better judges.”   

Wolfson declined to elaborate, absent a subpoena, on other alleged concerns about Tobiasson.

“Now, you had a conversation with our executive director Paul Deyhle. And you mentioned to him about the fact that Judge Tobiasson is involved in criminal activity. Is this the other stuff that you were talking about?” Wygnanski asked.

“Yes,” Wolfson replied. 

Deyhle did not respond to requests for comment on Wolfson’s allegations. 

The JDC filed a third and final complaint echoing its previous allegations against Tobiasson in October 2019, days after the FBI probe of Metro ended with a guilty plea from Jamal Rashid, known as rapper Mally Mall, on one count of Use of an Interstate Facility in Aid of an Unlawful Activity. No Metro officers were indicted.

Tobiasson resigned from the bench earlier this year, saying it was not an admission of wrongdoing. 

“I fought for so long because of the injustice of the JDC and its members. The only reason I agreed to resign is because I needed to regain control of my life,” she said in a statement to the Current at the time. 

Wolfson and Lombardo took part in negotiating her stipulated agreement to step down, according to sources. The two declined to comment. 

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Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.