Unnaturally Political

Did Nevada’s Ross Miller Violate State Ethics Law?

In the first debate of the campaign for Nevada attorney general, Republican Adam Laxalt hammered Democrat Ross Miller for accepting more than $60,000 in political gifts during his time as secretary of state.

State law says there are no limits on gifts that an elected official can receive. The question of whether those gifts represent a conflict of interest, however, is vague.

“My opponent has shown what I believe is a reckless habit of taking gifts,” Laxalt said during the debate. “I think it makes people wonder if their government works for them or for special interests.”

The “special interests,” in the case of the gifts Miller received, include political lobbyists, law firms, hedge fund managers and officials for Nevada Energy, the Nevada Mining Association and the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Nevada Revised Statute Chapter 281A addresses ethics in government and establishes an ethical standard for political gifts.

A public officer or employee shall not seek or accept any gift, service, favor, employment, engagement, emolument or economic opportunity which would tend improperly to influence a reasonable person in the public officer’s or employee’s position to depart from the faithful and impartial discharge of the public officer’s or employee’s public duties. – NRS 281.571(1)(e)

The question is whether or not gifts that include tickets to sporting events worth nearly $10,000, travel accommodations, dinners and banquets improperly influenced Miller, the third highest ranking government official in Nevada.

As secretary of state Miller is responsible for enforcing all election laws, for licensing and regulating athletic agents, regulating the securities industry, enforcing securities law and registering corporations and businesses statewide.

The givers of Miller’s gifts operate in those industries.

Caren Cafferata-Jenkins, executive director of the Nevada Commission on Ethics, says the commission has not tackled the question of the ethics of gift giving of this kind.  

“I am not aware of any opinion that would address the issue of the appearance of impropriety.” Cafferata-Jenkins told me in a phone interview.

During the debate, Miller contended the only reason Laxalt could make political gifts an issue was Miller’s having publicly disclosed receiving them.

“The entire reason that that’s out there is because I went above and beyond and disclosed those items, which many public officials aren’t doing,” Miller said.

If they aren’t doing it, they are breaking the law. Far from going above and beyond, Miller is required by Nevada law to file a financial disclosure statement for gifts valued at more than $200.

Miller has broken no laws, but it will be up to voters to decide whether or not it was appropriate to take gifts from people his office is sworn to regulate.

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