Flouting conflicts of interest is ‘the Nevada way’
Former Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada CEO Tina Quigley becomes president Monday of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, the state’s economic development arm in Southern Nevada, weeks after signing a stipulated agreement with the Nevada Ethics Commission that notes, among other things, that she is no longer a public official.
In 2015, then-Gov. Brian Sandoval appointed Quigley to the High Speed Rail Authority, which selected XpressWest from a handful of applicants vying to build a high speed train between Las Vegas and California. The Authority, in addition to selecting the successful applicant, assisted in procuring bond financing for the project.
Virgin Trains USA offered Quigley a job when it purchased XpressWest in June 2019. She left her positions on the Authority and at the RTC.
In October 2019, Quigley, about to begin her new job with Virgin in November, told the Current she was not subject to the state’s one-year ‘cooling off period,’ which prohibits a former official from working for parties on issues before the agency.
An ethics complaint filed in October 2019 against Quigley by an unsuccessful high speed train applicant alleges Quigley violated the state’s cooling off period, and violated a law that prohibits public officials from using their jobs to gain employment in the private sector.
In July 2021, a Review Panel of three Ethics Commissioners unanimously found “sufficient credible evidence to support a determination that just and sufficient cause exists to refer the allegations” to the Commission for further proceedings.
Quigley, rather than face a hearing before the Commission, opted for a stipulated agreement that says Quigley “recognizes that as a public officer the Ethics Law prohibited her from using her position with the Authority, or contacts made through her position with the Authority, to seek or accept employment.”
Quigley and the Commission agreed to a stipulated dismissal, “based on a lack of sufficient evidence to support the violations by a preponderance of the evidence.” She agreed to complete ethics training.
The agreement, approved by the Commission on January 24, cites mitigating factors, including Quigley’s lack of violations in the past, the fact that she no longer works for Virgin Trains, and is “not currently a public officer or employee.”
Weeks later on Feb. 8, the LVGEA announced Quigley will lead the organization.
LVGEA is “one of eight Regional Development Authorities (RDAs) throughout the state that are authorized by GOED (Governor’s Office of Economic Development),” according to GOED Director of Communications Greg Bortolin. “The state provides funding for each of the RDAs based on the population area they serve.”
Was the Ethics Commission aware of Quigley’s new job when it noted she is no longer a public official?
“When we enter into a stipulated agreement, it’s based on the past and it’s based on the current situation, not what’s in the future,” Ethics Commission chairwoman Kim Wallin said in a telephone interview.
Quigley was unable to say in a phone interview why she agreed to a stipulation.
“We reached a resolution that was acceptable to both parties, and the case was dismissed,” said Mark Ferrario, Quigley’s attorney in the matter.
“Tina Quigley most recently served as CEO for the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada,” says Quigley’s bio on the LVGEA website. It makes no mention of her brief stint with Virgin Trains after leaving the RTC.
Clark Wood, Southern Nevada Market President at US Bank, and chair of the CEO Search Committee for the LVGEA, said he did not know if the search committee was aware of the ethics complaint against Quigley and the stipulated agreement.
“They conducted a background search,” Quigley said.
Conflicts of interest form when a public official uses their position for their own gain, to benefit a family member, or when a personal or professional relationship compromises impartiality.
Last month, Gaming Control Board Chairman Brin Gibson invoked the “reasonable person standard” in defending the independence of his judgment at a licensing hearing for Apollo Global Management, which is in the process of purchasing the operations at Las Vegas Sands’ local properties.
Gibson, the son of Clark County Commissioner Jim Gibson, was appointed to the GCB by Gov. Steve Sisolak in 2020 while working for attorney Frank Shreck, who represents AGM in its licensing bid.
Gibson has refused to say whether he sought a confidential opinion from the Ethics Commission on his potential conflict.
“I thought that was a foolish exercise,” says former California Gambling Commission member Richard Schuetz, who wrote about Gibson’s conflict in a gaming trade publication. “And whether it was intentional, or as a result of his newness to the position and his immaturity, I think he made a mistake.”
A public official who asked not to be identified told the Current that Gibson was pressured by Sisolak to bring the AGM item forward, despite concerns from investigators. Sisolak, the source says, was asked by Schreck to proceed. Schreck denied the allegation. Sisolak did not respond.
“If you’re not going to recuse, make sure that you get another person’s opinion that is credible, and put it in writing,” Schuetz says. “Cover your behind on a $6 billion-plus transaction. That should have been an automatic, especially given that he (Gibson) was presiding over his past employer.”
Conflicts of interest undermine trust in government. The Nevada Ethics Commission, charged with investigating and sanctioning conflicts, has long been viewed as a paper tiger.
“In the past, that might have been the situation but not now,” says Wallin. “We actually can go and bring a complaint forward on our own. We don’t have to wait for somebody to file a complaint. I think we’ve done some pretty high fines as well.”
“In FY21, the Commission imposed $44,788 in civil penalties, representing a significant upward trend from the previous year’s $5,000,” says its annual report for 2021.
Complaints have declined in recent years, perhaps because of the pandemic. The Ethics Commission received 55 complaints in 2018; 123 complaints in 2019; 89 complaints in 2020; and 69 in 2021.
“If an elected public official knowingly violates the ethics code three times, we can actually start proceedings to remove them from office,” says Wallin.
Findings of intentional violations are rare. For the most part, officials face what amounts to a slap on the wrist.
The Ethics Commission resolved eight complaints in 2021. All were dismissed, according to its annual report.
Nevada, by virtue of its size and limited pool of talent in Carson City, the seat of state government, may be subject to more conflicts of interest, especially involving nepotism, than larger states.
In November 2019, the Current reported that Gov. Steve Sisolak’s appointment of Melanie Young as Taxation Director placed Young in violation of a state law that prohibits officials from supervising a relative. Young’s daughter, Ashley McKenzie Ingersoll Leano, was an auditor in the Taxation Department’s Marijuana Enforcement Division.
When a personnel appointment results in an official supervising a relative, Nevada Administrative Code says the “appointing authority (in this case Sisolak) shall ensure that, as soon as practicable, the employees do not continue to hold positions in which one of the employees is in the direct line of authority of the other employee.”
Sisolak would not comment at the time and Young remained in the position until last year.
Last year, the Ethics Commission Review Panel found no cause to proceed with a complaint filed in 2020 against Young, the subject of which is not public.
“Nevertheless, the Review Panel believes it is appropriate to issue a confidential Letter of Instruction to inform Young about the parameters of the Ethics Law to ensure that she avoids conflicts by maintaining proper separation between her public duties and private interests,” says the panel determination.
Sisolak’s choice to lead the Department of Administration, Deonne E. Contine, resigned in November 2019 when the Current reported Contine was listed on eight marijuana licenses in Nevada. Contine previously regulated the marijuana licensing process as director of the Department of Taxation in the administration of former Gov. Brian Sandoval.
Contine denied holding any marijuana licenses, however, in July 2019, Contine told the Reno Gazette-Journal that she “was on the board” of a marijuana company “for four or five months after leaving her Taxation Department position in January 2018,” and “she did not want to discuss it at length.”
A spokesman for Sisolak declined to say at the time whether the governor knew of Contine’s involvement with the marijuana industry before appointing her to the Department of Administration.
Some public officials are statutorily prohibited from conflicts that are specific to their profession.
The Nevada Pharmacy Board voted Dave Wuest as Executive Secretary in 2017. His wife, Deborah, has been licensed since 1992 as a Reno pharmacist, according to the board’s website.
Nevada law says an executive director or executive secretary of a regulatory body must not be the immediate relative of a licensee, which would include a spouse.
Wuest did not respond to requests for comment when the Current reported the conflict in 2020.
Schuetz contends the state’s regulatory agencies have been captured by the industries they are intended to oversee, and that relatively low salaries earned by regulatory leaders perpetuate a revolving door of officials seeking higher-paying private sector jobs.
Case in point – the Nevada Gaming Control Board, which was led by four different chairpersons in the four years from 2017 to 2020.
“It does not take a management wizard to conclude this level of turnover in the top regulatory position in Nevada is not organizationally healthy,” Schuetz writes. “It is also interesting to note that all of the above listed individuals, with the exception of the existing chair, are in one capacity or another, now involved in the gaming industry. It seems to be the Nevada way.”
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