In late 2007, as the Nevada Policy Research Institute was gearing up a broad transparency-in-government initiative, the opportunity arose for NPRI and other state-based think tanks to obtain national funding to pursue state and local investigative reporting projects.
Key facets of NPRI's transparency initiative in 2008 would eventually include our Nevada Piglet Book and our TransparentNevada.com website, which together involved more than 100 open-records requests from NPRI to Nevada's counties and major cities.
As the investigative reporting opportunity presented itself, the question became: What part of Nevada government most needed sunlight? And one candidate seemed a natural: the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which consumes a massive amount of taxpayer money – some $284 million last year – while operating free from any genuine oversight.
Thus NPRI decided that, in the interest of open government, the LVCVA warranted a closer examination. And, sure enough, much of the documentation provided in response to NPRI's open-records requests – available along with our detailed report at www.npri.org – suggests even more public scrutiny is needed.
Sadly, but predictably, as details of LVCVA finances have come to light, the strategy of its officers – and of some of its allies in the media – has been to try to shift focus away from the substance of NPRI's findings and onto NPRI itself.
Some have suggested that because NPRI counts the Las Vegas Sands Corp. among its supporters, that must mean, ipso facto, that NPRI must have undertaken the project solely at the direction of Sands Chairman Sheldon Adelson, a vocal critic of the LVCVA.
It is true NPRI receives support from the Sands Corp. Sands President and COO Bill Weidner sits on the Institute's board of directors, and the Venetian Resort∙Hotel∙Casino has in recent years hosted NPRI's annual dinner. Yet anyone familiar with NPRI would immediately recognize the absurdity of the charge that the Institute, through its LVCVA transparency project, is doing any one man's bidding.
For starters, NPRI has existed for nearly 18 years as a public policy outfit devoted to the pursuit of responsible government in Nevada. That NPRI today would scrutinize a government entity such as the LVCVA is entirely consistent with the Institute's mission since its founding, years before Mr. Weidner was a supporter. To put it simply: This is just what we do.
Secondly, as noted earlier, this project was supported by national funding. Neither Mr. Adelson, nor Mr. Weidner, nor the Sands Corp. supported it financially. To our knowledge, the source of the national funding has no connection with Nevada at all, but is simply interested in supporting the cause of government transparency.
Some are asking: Why doesn't NPRI disclose its donors in order to "clear the air"? The reason is simple: Those who contribute to NPRI do so with the understanding that they can, if they choose, remain anonymous, and the Institute has an ethical obligation to respect that. Donors alone decide whether they want to go public.
Furthermore, there is a practical reason why the Internal Revenue Code does not require nonprofit, 501(c)3 organizations like NPRI to disclose their funding sources: Anonymity encourages charitable giving. Those who wish to contribute to nonprofit organizations would certainly be more reluctant to do so if they knew their contributions were going to be publicized.
Consider: In the days following the release of this project, multiple private investigators visited NPRI's offices requesting our financial statements and claiming to be working for "the other side." Some of our board members have been approached with broad hints about retaliation if NPRI's look into LVCVA financing proceeds. Public disclosure of our donors would certainly open virtually every one of them to similar intimidation tactics.
Some critics have thrown hypocrisy charges at us, in that we champion open government yet won't release our own donor information. This is a classic apples-to-oranges comparison. NPRI is a private organization, whose donors give their support voluntarily. No one who does not agree with NPRI's mission is compelled to give us money. The LVCVA, however, is a public entity, which citizens are forced to fund through taxation. It is thoroughly disingenuous to equate support for open government with an obligation to abrogate the rights of average citizens to a personal zone of privacy.
Efforts to make this story about NPRI ought to be recognized for what they really are: attempts to change the subject. This tactic is typical of those, particularly in government, who have been caught engaging in questionable practices and want to avoid difficult questions. Nevada's citizens should beware this red herring. For despite its recently released "LVCVA Accountability Report," which consisted primarily of bland, non-denial denials, the LVCVA still has failed to address the central questions that NPRI's report – relying on the LVCVA's own public documents – raises.
Nevada's citizens should not let them get away with it.
Steven Miller is vice president for policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.