Justice not blind in Clark County DA’s office, says Wolfson’s primary opponent
Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson (left) and Democratic primary challenger Ozzie Fumo.
It’s who you know, not necessarily what you did, that holds sway with Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson, says Wolfson’s Democratic primary election opponent Ozzie Fumo.
“Justice is not being distributed equally,” Fumo, a defense attorney and former state assemblyman, said during a phone interview.
Wolfson did not respond to the Current’s requests for an interview but has rejected such allegations elsewhere.
“I take extreme exception to the accusation that wealthy people are getting special treatment,” Wolfson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Critics of the DA point to a number of high-profile cases to bolster their case.
Former gaming magnate Steve Wynn, for example, described by Wolfson as “a friend for many, many years… [and]… a supporter of my campaigns for many, many years,” is accused by former employees of sexual harassment, coercion, indecent exposure and rape.
Wynn, according to the Wall Street Journal, paid a $7.5 million settlement to end a civil suit filed by a manicurist who says Wynn impregnated her during a rape. Wynn claims the sex was consensual.
Nevada law has no statute of limitations to bring rape charges when the suspect is identified by DNA evidence and/or a police report is filed within 20 years of the alleged incident, but Wolfson has made no effort to bring charges against Wynn and continues to accept Wynn’s contributions.
Companies associated with Wynn contributed $30,000 to Wolfson on the same day last year. On Aug. 24, Valmore GP LLC, a company that lists Wynn as an officer, contributed $10,000 to Wolfson’s campaign; Lulu Management Group, LLC, of which Wynn is an officer, contributed $10,000; and Sierra Charter, LLC, the registered owner of Wynn’s jet, gave another $10,000.
The case of billionaire drug defendant Henry Nicholas and his companion, Ashley Fargo, found in a Las Vegas hotel room with enough drugs to warrant trafficking charges under previous standards, sparked a chorus of allegations that justice is for sale in Clark County.
Wolfson campaigned on behalf of Nicholas’ victims rights ballot measure, Marsy’s Law.
Nicholas and Fargo entered Alford pleas (essentially a guilty plea from a defendant who asserts innocence but acknowledges the strength of the evidence against them) on one count of possession of a controlled substance and made contributions to charity. Nicholas and Fargo were represented by attorney David Chesnoff, a longtime contributor to Wolfson’s campaigns.
On Aug. 19, 2021, Chesnoff contributed $10,000 to Wolfson. On the same date, David Chesnoff Chartered contributed $10,000, followed a few days later by $10,000 from Schonfeld Chartered, controlled by Chesnoff’s partner Richard Schonfeld.
In September, Chesnoff’s wife, Diana, contributed $5,000, bringing the total of Chesnoff and Schonfeld contributions to Wolfson to $35,000. The contributions are within the limits established by Nevada law.
Wolfson dismisses such claims of favoritism.
“I take exception to the accusation that certain lawyers get special deals,” Wolfson said during an interview on KLAS-TV. “We evaluate cases on a case-by-case basis.”
As evidence, Wolfson pointed to the plea deal accepted by Scott Gragson, a real estate executive who is serving a minimum of six to 15 years for a drunk driving incident that took the life of a mother of three and injured three others.
Gragson’s blood alcohol content was twice the legal limit, police said. He was also represented by Chesnoff.
“Ask that gentleman if he thinks his lawyer got special treatment,” Wolfson said on KLAS.
Wolfson’s detractors say people in the DA’s personal sphere also receive special treatment.
Police arrested Wolfson’s campaign consultant Matt DeFalco in February at Resorts World Las Vegas for alleged battery of his domestic partner, Nevada Board of Regents candidate Karl Catarata. The district attorney, who kept DeFalco on his payroll after the arrest, according to campaign finance reports, has so far not filed charges against DeFalco and last week asked to continue the matter until next month, after the primary election. DeFalco is also represented by Chesnoff.
“That’s the thing that’s so transparent about Steve. It’s obvious what he’s doing,” says Fumo, who says Wolfson is “doing the same thing he did with Henry Nicholas” and waiting until after the primary to drop the charges. “It’s the same thing he did with Audrie Locke.”
Wolfson’s longtime assistant, Audrie Locke, admitted she stole more than $40,000 from Wolfson’s campaign account, but the DA kept the theft under wraps for years until the Las Vegas Review-Journal uncovered it in 2018. She was never charged. Locke said she had a gambling problem and her family repaid the money. She recently transferred from the DA’s office to another position in Clark County.
“He’s an elitist,” says Fumo. “He thinks he can treat his people the way he wants and he doesn’t think anybody’s going to expose him for it. It’s almost like the emperor has no clothes.”
Wolfson, criticized for posing legislative obstacles to criminal justice reforms, is touting his own “smart reforms” as a centerpiece of his bid for re-election, including Hope for Second Chances, a program run by Hope for Prisoners, a nationally-recognized prison re-entry program.
“By successfully completing this program, offenders are able to receive the help they need, rather than being sent to prison,” reads Wolfson’s website.
But Wolfson has failed to provide data on the program’s outcomes, and court officials have been unable to identify any defendants who took part.
“The district court has no involvement with the Hope for Second Chances program,” Mary Ann Price, spokeswoman for Clark County District Court, said via email.
“I’m not familiar with the program that you’re referencing,” Las Vegas Justice Court Chief Judge Melissa Saragosa said during a phone interview.
Hope for Prisoners founder and CEO Jon Ponder has also not responded to requests for comment.
In April, Wolfson backed out of a debate sponsored by the Clark County Black Caucus, NAACP, and the ACLU at the last minute, even after organizers complied with his requests for a remote location and no audience because he and his staff “didn’t feel safe,” according to Yvette Williams, chairperson of the Clark County Black Caucus.
“His response of not feeling safe, that appears to be only for Black folks,” Williams said in a phone interview at the time, noting Wolfson appeared at another event the same day.
Wolfson, who would not respond to the Current, told the LVRJ in a statement that he backed out because of incidents in which Gov. Steve Sisolak and Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo were publicly confronted by critics.
But Wolfson’s detractors say he has much to answer for and is loath to do so.
Fumo said at that debate that, if elected, he’d end death penalty prosecutions because of the potential for executing an innocent person.
“According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1973, 186 individuals in America have been found innocent after previously being sentenced to death,” he said.
Wolfson opposed abolishing the death penalty because he said there’s not enough time for debate at the Legislature. He later proposed that voters decide the issue.
Lobbyists who work for Wolfson opposed some, but not all, reform measures proposed during the last legislative session.
“We were supportive of some bail reform matters. We were supportive of decriminalizing traffic tickets. We were supportive of reducing probationary terms,” Wolfson told the Current last year when he announced his re-election bid. “So, I don’t think it’s fair to say we were against so many things.”
“We have reduced the number of cases we are approving” for prosecution, he said, adding for years the office has approved 80% of cases submitted. “Now we’re down below 70%. So we’re being more selective in the cases we approve.”
“Some reforms are good, but I don’t believe in the ultra-progressive socialism type of reforms,” Wolfson recently told the LVRJ, sounding more like a Republican than a Democrat. “… I’m not going to let Nevada become the next California.”
The DA’s office has a backlog of 450 murder cases, according to Wolfson. Fumo says his opponent is wasting resources on low-level crime and says he could “unclog that backlog sooner rather than later” by eliminating death penalty prosecutions and negotiating.
Wolfson’s campaign, backed by $1.2 million in the bank as of the end of March, is ubiquitous, with mailers landing regularly and ads saturating TV.
Fumo, on the other hand, raised $37,000 last year, $42,590 in the first period of this year, and had $26,709 on hand.
Fumo says he’s relying on the support of Culinary Local 226, SEIU and the AFL-CIO to turn out their members, families and friends.
“I just hope that voters educate themselves on the two candidates before they cast their vote and not just vote based on a popularity contest,” says Fumo, who admits he has no prosecutorial experience, but notes former district attorneys Rex Bell and Stewart Bell also lacked prosecutorial experience before their elections. “I’ve done more jury trials in the last six months than Steve Wolfson has done in the last 35 years.”
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