Why separation of powers matters: Collusion between government agencies and elected officials
On Monday, I began a series here at Write on Nevada, detailing exactly why the separation-of-powers provision in Nevada's constitution is essential to protecting liberty.
We've looked at how liberty isn't inevitable and must be protected. We've seen how important the separation of powers was and is to political philosophers, America's founders and the U.S. and Nevada Supreme Court. We've applauded legislators who understand and respect the separation of powers, even if it meant finding a new job. And we've seen the corruption that happens when legislators are allowed to ignore the separation of powers.
And today, I want to share how, for decades, government agencies have wanted powerful legislators on their payrolls, because they "added value" in Carson City and "open[ed] doors" lobbyists couldn't.
And that brings us back to former-assemblyman Wendell Williams, although this story is bigger than one individual. As before this story comes from Steven Miller's most excellent Lawmakers vs. the law series.
It was late November 2003, and for Las Vegas city employee and state Assemblyman Wendell Williams, the days were dwindling down to a precious few.It's time for the judicial system to stop this abuse and enforce Nevada's separation-of-powers provision.
For months, he'd been in political hot water. Now the city council had scheduled a special hearing that appeared to be his last chance to save his $86,000-a-year city job.
As detailed in the third installment of this series, disclosures of Williams' multiple driving and scofflaw-court transgressions across the state had been followed by revelations of scandalous deals with the brass at the Community College of Southern Nevada (now called the College of Southern Nevada).
But it wasn't those issues that were bringing him before the city council on Nov. 25. Rather, it was the fact that, for weeks, reporters at the Las Vegas Review-Journal had been turning up more and more abuses by Williams of his position as a city employee.
And it was dawning on voters - assisted by reporters, columnists and editorial writers at the two major Las Vegas papers - that in this avalanche of preferential treatment for a powerful politician that was creating problems across the state, the City of Las Vegas had never been a mere innocent bystander.
But that, of course, was what the city wanted the public to believe.
Two months earlier, city officials - caught out by damning information about to be made public by R-J reporters probing Williams' personal use of his city-issued cell phone - suddenly announced that the assemblyman would repay the city $1,844 for personal calls made over a 13-month period - the very period of the newspaper's request.
Significantly, city officials made those arrangements with Williams on the same day that reporters were at last receiving the assemblyman's city cell-phone records that the paper had requested.
One day after breaking the cell-phone story, the Review-Journal came out with another blockbuster: During each of the 2003, 2001, 1999 and 1997 legislative sessions, Williams had finagled ways to "double-dip" - to get paid for doing his city job at the same time he was being paid a legislator's salary and per-diem expenses as an active state lawmaker.
For the 2003 session, Williams agreed to repay the city $6,765 for hours he did not work but for which he had submitted false time cards and had been paid. It harkened suspiciously back to 1997, when Williams had also been required to repay the city - that time nearly $4,000 - after it was discovered he had received full-time pay for two weeks of the legislative session. At the time, city officials had publicly blamed the overpayments on "clerical errors."
In 2003, city officials had at least twice sought to conceal the full scope of Williams' fraud against city taxpayers:In response to the newspaper's request for all of Williams' "pay records" for January through July, [reported the R-J,] city officials provided only a summary of revised time sheets, which made no mention of the thousands of dollars in pay discrepancies.During the 2001 legislative session, too, R-J reporters found, Williams had wangled full-time city pay by spuriously billing taxpayers for sick pay, vacation pay and holiday pay.
When questioned last week about the lawmaker's pay while he was in Carson City, city officials also did not acknowledge that they had themselves questioned the hours he claimed during the legislative session.
The Review-Journal interviewed Williams' boss, Neighborhood Services Director Sharon Segerblom, the day after Williams signed an agreement to return to the city more than a quarter of his 2003 pay. She said she "had no reason to question" his time sheets.
"In the communication I had with him, I had no reason to think he wasn't working," Segerblom said Sept. 25.
Williams' timecard had, however, been an issue for months, officials admitted Friday.
According to a breakdown by Las Vegas Sun editorial writers, the assemblyman had "billed the city for the entire time the Legislature was in regular session at his then-wage of $36 an hour. Williams also was brazen in collecting 208 hours of sick time, 112 hours of vacation time and 32 hours of holiday time during that period."
The Sun also noted that Morse Arberry - at the time chairman of the Assembly's powerful Ways and Means committee - had used the same ploy in the 1997, 1999 and 2001 legislative sessions when he, too, was a state lawmaker being paid to nominally work in the city's Neighborhood Services department.
"Based on the information that has been slowly trickling out about Williams - and now about Arberry," counseled the Sun, "the city should ask a government agency or someone not affiliated with the local government to conduct an independent investigation." The obvious problem with the investigation that the deputy city manager was supposedly conducting, noted the editorial, was the "questions as to whether the city government itself has some culpability in this affair," given the power Williams and Arberry had in the state legislature.
But there would be no independent inquiry.
None of the city's higher-ups - administrators or elected officials - saw any percentage in risking an investigation that might get out of control.
An independent investigator, after all, might well parade before voters some of the massive evidence suggesting what had been the city's actual policy: hiring, as city employees, powerful state lawmakers precisely because they were powerful state lawmakers.
Political scientists regularly note that if government can evade constitutional separation-of-power provisions, collusion between actors in the separate branches at the expense of voters and taxpayers easily follows.
As Williams' last-chance hearing proceeded, council members admitted that they were looking at only the tip of the iceberg. Yet other council members just wanted to end any look at the imbroglio at all and quickly "move on," without probing deeper. That, of course, spoke volumes about the actual culture operating within the city's leadership.
But even more direct evidence was being placed clearly on the record.
The de facto policy that had existed within city management when she had been a deputy city manager in the early 1990s, said the now-councilwoman, Lynette Boggs McDonald, had been quite clear.
City officials, she said, definitely wanted legislators on the city payroll - because they "added value."
No other city bigwig at the hearing wanted to touch that radioactive factoid with a 10-foot pole.
Williams himself, however, was more than happy to elaborate.
Given his position as a lawmaker, he said, city officials would call him to "open doors" in the Legislature that regular employees - i.e., hired lobbyists - could not.
The assemblyman didn't seem to get it: Proving the collusion by city government - to those in city government and before the news media - only made him more radioactive.
Within 10 days, he'd been fired.