Looking the Other Way

Steven Miller

If you’ve ever wanted to get past all the propaganda and grasp the main problem behind state government in Nevada today, Assemblyman Wendell Williams, D-Clark County, is helping you out.

Not that Williams intends to, of course. But recently his history has been catching up with him, and it sheds significant light on how Nevada’s coalition of tax-consuming public employees operates to keep control of state government.

For those who’ve been out of the loop, Williams is the speaker pro tem of the Assembly and long-time boss of its Education Committee. That’s where, for years, all good education-reform legislation in Nevada has regularly been smothered to death.

Assemblyman Williams is also a habitual and blatant scofflaw. The 17-year member of the legislature’s lower chamber has for years ignored state laws requiring politicians to report their campaign finances. Only under great threats of prosecution from the Secretary of State, has he agreed to pay his fines—which are still nevertheless chronically late.

Williams also breaks traffic laws with abandon. For most of the last two years he drove without a driver’s license. It was suspended in 2001 when he failed to show up in a Reno traffic court on one of his chronic speeding tickets. This July 30 a Reno court issued an arrest warrant for Williams after a no-show on a May speeding ticket.

More recently it’s become evident that the assemblyman also routinely uses his education committee chairmanship for something indistinguishable from extortion.

Last month it was learned that Williams—who has life-or-death power over all education legislation—leaned on the Community College of Southern Nevada to put his 28-year-old female companion on its payroll, then assign her to be with him in Carson City. When his playmate’s incompetence and insubordination were about to get her fired from the phony job, Williams called in the chancellor of the state’s entire higher education system to block the termination.

Reports from legislative insiders during the last session also had Williams flogging a scheme for the chancellor to lease West Las Vegas property for a Nevada State College “truck-driving school.” Part of the package: an administrative job at the school for Williams’ girl friend.

Not only has the assemblyman gotten away with behavior like this for years, he’s routinely been rewarded. A former gym teacher repeatedly elected to the legislature with the support of the state teacher union, Williams for years has occupied virtually no-show City of Las Vegas jobs. Six years ago he was pulling down $59,000 annually for occasionally sitting in the city’s office of “federal, state and local initiatives.” Later, he was given a $26,000 annual raise and moved into the city’s neighborhood services boondoggle. But even during the last Legislature in Carson City, Williams continued to bill the City of Las Vegas for “neighborhood services” work—to the tab of $13,000. Apparently Carson City, too, is now a Vegas neighborhood.

With many Williams’ sins coming home to roost so publicly, his longtime collaborators are running for cover. Last week, the City of Las Vegas at last suspended him from his make-work job—after allowing him for more than a year to ignore city rules on monthly reimbursement for heavy personal use of his city cell phone. In the words of Review-Journal columnist and corruption-connoisseur John L. Smith, “His allies have covered for him for years, but now their jobs hang in the balance…. Now those around him look like mopes for supporting him.”

Those “mopes” include the leaders of the Assembly majority, Richard Perkins and Barbara Buckley. And here we begin to see why Williams has been allowed so long to get away with so much—whether by the courts, the police, the City of Las Vegas, his teacher-union backers or legislative leaders.

As columnist Steve Sebelius recently spelled out, Assembly leaders have been reluctant to deal with Williams’ offenses, fearing doing so could mean loss of their party’s control of the Assembly—should miffed black voters decide to stay home.

In other words, Williams’ presence on the ticket has been thought necessary if the coalition of public-employee interests that controls the Nevada Assembly—and each session wrings ever-larger sums out of Silver State taxpayers—is to retain power.

It seems less than coincidental, therefore, that it has been members of that same coalition—judges, police, other local government employees, the higher-ed establishment, the teacher union and Assembly leaders—who, until it was impossible with Assemblyman Williams, so regularly looked the other way.

Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

Steven Miller

Senior Vice President, Nevada Journal Managing Editor

Steven Miller is Nevada Journal Managing Editor, Emeritus, and has been with the Institute since 1997.

Steven graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Philosophy from Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna). Before joining NPRI, Steven worked as a news reporter in California and Nevada, and a political cartoonist in Nevada, Hawaii and North Carolina. For 10 years he ran a successful commercial illustration studio in New York City, then for five years worked at First Boston Credit Suisse in New York as a technical analyst. After returning to Nevada in 1991, Steven worked as an investigative reporter before joining NPRI.