At first, the story was simple: Driving violations by the second-most powerful politician in the Nevada Assembly revealed a man seriously out of control.
Soon, however, an even bigger story began emerging. And month after month — notwithstanding the best efforts of Nevada government officials to suppress it — it kept elbowing its way to the front of the news, ever larger, ever more disturbing.
That story was right at the sensitive nexus between the Nevada Legislature and Southern Nevada's local governments — the highly delicate interface where powerful state lawmakers just happened to hold lucrative jobs in the local-government bureaucracy.
At that nexus, the record kept revealing, corruption was both endemic and systematic.
The year was 2003, and the lawmaker in the headlines, of course, was Wendell Williams. The chairman of the powerful Assembly Education Committee and president pro-tem of the Legislature's lower chamber had been driving for two years with a suspended license. Now — after Williams had failed to appear on another charge: driving in excess of 100 mph and making unsafe lane changes — an arrest warrant had been issued by a Reno court.
The warrant was a breach in the kid-gloves treatment that Assemblyman Williams — driving a BMW convertible bearing Assembly license plate No. 5 — usually received from Nevada law enforcement. In July 2002, while driving on the suspended license, Williams had received a traffic citation from Las Vegas Metro, but was allowed to proceed. And according to Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins — himself a deputy police chief in Henderson — both he and Nevada Highway Patrol Chief David Hosmer had known during the 2003 Legislature that Williams was driving with a suspended license.
What finally interrupted the hands-off treatment, apparently, was that the assemblyman's reckless driving between Reno and Carson just became too notorious to cover up. Where law enforcement had been absent, outraged private citizens were taking action — and doing so publicly.
First, an outraged attorney telephoned the Nevada Highway Patrol and then filed a written complaint. "He passed me doing 95 mph," Reno attorney Kenneth Stover told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "I got mad so I paced him. He pushed it to 100 mph, 105 mph and 110 mph through the Washoe Valley. He was riding the bumpers of other cars."
Williams zoomed past Stover on May 1. Two weeks later he shot past Kristen Burke, of Dayton, going at least 80 mph, she later told the R-J. She then wrote the Nevada Appeal.
"He was weaving in and out, and there was quite a bit of traffic," she said, adding that when Williams reached a red light on the southern outskirts of Reno, he simply ran it.
"He was out of control," said Burke. "What makes him think he doesn't have to abide by the laws he is setting for other people?"
It's an entirely natural question. For the future of the Silver State, however, it's also a critically important one.
The record demonstrates that Wendell Williams and other Nevada lawmakers did, indeed, become convinced that they were above the law. As we'll see below, a process is in place that essentially instructs them in this point of view.
In the weeks after the reckless-driving stories broke, a seemingly never-ending-stream of additional Wendell Williams scandals began surfacing. If studied closely, those scandals are highly illuminating.
Most titillating to news outlets in 2003, however, were clearly the relationships between Williams and the College of Southern Nevada (CSN), then still named the Community College of Southern Nevada (CCSN).
Williams had shown up in January 2003 at the CCSN president's office with a nubile young woman in tow, one Topazia "Briget" Jones. The college should use some of its public funding to not only to hire her onto its staff, Williams suggested, but to also assign her to work with him in Carson City during the upcoming legislature.
Such a suggestion — given Williams' position chairing the Nevada Assembly's Education Committee and thus controlling any funds that CCSN might hope to get during the session — was clearly unethical, and verged on outright extortion.
But the school's then-president, Ron Remington, and his administrative shadow and top lobbyist, John Cummings, didn't even blink. Neither one, it developed, had any significant qualms — as long as Williams would agree, in turn, to help them circumvent policies set by their bosses within the state higher-ed system.
The board of regents and the system chancellor had decided that CCSN was to remain a two-year institution, while the University of Nevada at Las Vegas would be the home for any new four-year programs. The CCSN conspirators, however, saw the possibility that Williams could get the Legislature to legally order the regents and chancellor to do what Remington and Cummings wanted: abort the two-year CCSN policy and give their school new four-year baccalaureate programs.
As outlined in AB 511, the bill eventually introduced by Williams, the first programs were to be in nursing and teaching. To avoid problems with their higher-ups, both Remington and Cummings repeatedly instructed Williams and Ms. Jones, according to the latter pair, that Remington's and Cummings' "fingerprints" could never appear publicly anywhere near the legislation.
The initial language of AB 511 was supplied by Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, who — ever-so-conveniently — worked under Cummings in the CCSN lobbying and recruiting operation. She later would tell the Las Vegas Sun that when Williams had asked Cummings for a conceptual draft of the bill he and Remington wanted, "I looked at what John wrote and said, ‘That doesn't make sense,' and I wrote something up." And indeed, according to legislative records, the initial bill description faxed to Carson City came from the fax machine assigned to Giunchigliani's CCSN office.
Like a coach adding professional ringers to his roster, Cummings had the previous summer hired two state lawmakers at generous, taxpayer-funded salaries. One was long-time Cummings chum Giunchigliani — president of the state teacher union in 1990 when Cummings was executive director and who's now running for mayor of Las Vegas — and the other was Assemblyman Mark Manendo, now a state senator, added to staff in 2002 to supposedly recruit more students to the already overcrowded CCSN campus.
But Cummings' ploy was not at all uncommon. In hiring employees that he could then lobby during legislative sessions — upping the odds that he and his bosses would be given the taxpayers' dollars they wanted — Cummings was following a trail well-worn by the Clark County School District, the Nevada System of Higher Education, Clark County and multiple cities of Southern Nevada.
And here the road leads back to Williams and the nexus between local governments and the state legislature that corrupts public servants by demonstrating to them that, indeed, practically speaking, they are, usually, above the law.
Williams — like Giunchigliani, like Manendo and like Morse Arberry, Williams' long-time colleague in the City of Las Vegas department of Neighborhood Services — had been hired illegally, in direct violation of the state constitution. And no Nevada legal authority or political body had ever even batted an eye, over all the subsequent years.
No Senator or member of Assembly shall, during the term for which he shall have been elected, nor for one year thereafter be appointed to any civil office of profit [i.e., a paid position] under this State which shall have been created, or the emoluments of which shall have been increased during such term, except such office as may be filled by elections by the people.
The clear purpose of the provision had been to prevent the kind of incestuous corruption that would become all-too-common in Southern Nevada. Yet Giunchigliani, Williams, Arberry and Manendo had all, during their terms as active legislators, been appointed to newly created or higher-paying "civil offices of profit" that existed under state authority.
For Giunchigliani and Manendo, the CCSN jobs had been newly created in the summer of 2002. Arberry's Neighborhood Services job had been created in 1996, when the new department was launched. And Williams had been appointed to his own, new, higher-paying job in Neighborhood Services shortly thereafter.
To Williams, like Arberry — whose own ethical problems would also subsequently become clear — the lesson had been clear.
Political juice was all. And if you had it, you were above the law.
Steven Miller is vice president for policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit http://npri.org.