Why separation of powers matters: The story of CCSN, Wendell Williams, Chris Giunchigliani, and Mark Manendo

Victor Joecks

Last week, NPRI’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation sued Mo Denis, the Public Utilities Commission, and the State of Nevada for violating the separation-of-powers clause in Nevada’s constitution.

By challenging Nevada’s long-standing abuse of the separation-of-powers principle, NPRI’s case is the first step in restoring the balance of power in Nevada’s government and guaranteeing the liberties of the people.

Full details on the case are available here, but I want to spend some time this week unpacking the phrase “restoring the balance of power in Nevada’s government and guaranteeing the liberties of the people.”

How is power in government balanced? Why do we have freedom? Is oppressive government really a threat? How does the separation of powers guarantee liberty? What happens – and what problems does it create – when a lawmaker serves in two branches of government?

To start answering that last question, I’d like to tell you about the Community College of Southern Nevada (now the College of Southern Nevada), Wendell Williams, then-assemblyman and city of Las Vegas employee, Chris Giunchigliani, then-assemblywoman and CCSN employee, and Mark Manendo, then-assemblyman and CCSN employee. This story comes courtesy of NPRI’s Steven Miller and his excellent Lawmakers vs. the law series.

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.

Guarding against this type of abuse is one reason that Article 3, Section 1, of Nevada’s constitution reads:

The powers of the Government of the State of Nevada shall be divided into three separate departments,-the Legislative,-the Executive and the Judicial; and no persons charged with the exercise of powers properly belonging to one of these departments shall exercise any functions, appertaining to either of the others …

This story – and preventing it from happening again – is one of many reasons why it’s so important defend the separation-of-powers provision in Nevada’s constitution.

Keep reading Write on Nevada this week for more stories on the problems caused by lawmakers serving in two branches of government and answers to the questions raised above.

If there are any questions you would like addressed, please leave them in the comments section.