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State ethics backlog in publishing opinions having real consequences for one former public official


By Sean Whaley, Nevada News Bureau: A two-year backlog in publishing opinions rendered by the Nevada State Ethics Commission is having tangible and detrimental consequences for at least one former state public officer.

Former Lyon County Manger Dennis Stark, who appeared before the commission on an ethics matter in November 2010 and January 2011, is still waiting for a published order in his case.

Without it, he cannot pursue a court appeal on the one charge for which he was found to have violated state ethics laws. With no final record of the hearing, Stark, who called the one infraction minor and the result of fabricated testimony, said he cannot successfully seek employment either.

Photo by Tom Ventura via Flickr.

Stark said he is in limbo, unemployed while waiting for final resolution to his ethics matter.

“I can’t move on with my life, personally or professionally, without that final order,” he said in a telephone interview this week. “And that is basically keeping me out of employment. I cannot make an income to support my family or pay my bills.”

Stark said he is living on unemployment.

“I’m dying on the vine here,” he said.

In an Oct. 19 letter to Ethics Commission Chairman Erik Beyer, Stark urged the panel to find a way to address the backlog: “In my case, for example, the ‘lack of opinion’ or ruling seriously impacts my well-being on a number of levels: financially, emotionally, and physically. I have been essentially ‘blocked’ from gainful employment and other constitutional rights and now teeter on the brink of bankruptcy.”

Caren Jenkins, executive director of the state Ethics Commission since 2009, agrees that Stark deserves to have the written decision in his case. He is one of many waiting for a written determination, she said.

Jenkins said the agency has fallen behind in issuing written opinions because of a major increase in public officials seeking guidance.

With the last increase in staff – from three to five – coming in 2004, the commission has focused its limited resources on investigating and hearing ethics cases so oral decisions can be rendered at meetings, she said.

There were 67 requests for opinions in 2004, and she expects 172 this year. Jenkins said she has one investigator for the entire state who must review each case.

“The demands on our staff have become almost laughable,” she said. “We have three times the workload for when they thought we needed five full-time staffers.”

As a result, the publishing of its formal opinions in the cases has fallen about two years behind with 50 opinions yet to be written, Jenkins said.

The agency sought two new positions in the 2011 session, but the Legislature did not approve them, given all the other critical demands on the budget, she said.

The Ethics Commission, a panel of eight appointees who render decisions in cases, authorized Jenkins to approach the executive and legislative branches with an interim funding request to hire the two staff. But without any significant change in the agency’s situation that was not considered in the 2011 session, there is no support for such a request, Jenkins said.

The backlog, first reported by the Las Vegas Sun, is a significant concern, she said.

“We have all of the elected public officers, all of the appointed public officers, and every public employee in the state of Nevada under our jurisdiction,” Jenkins said. “Everybody in the state of Nevada who is paid by a government or serves the government is under the jurisdiction of the commission. So our client base, if you will, is huge.

“The long-term effect of being underfunded is that the public simply is not on notice of where the line is between a violation and a non-violation,” she said. “And at some point, due process is going to be deemed to have been affected.”

The opinions, when written, are published on the agency’s website to provide guidance for others, Jenkins said.

The Nevada Attorney General’s office has offered some assistance, which is appreciated, she said. But the commission has to tread carefully since the agency has jurisdiction over the attorney general’s office as well on ethics matters.

Stark’s ethics troubles began when Deborah Aquino, now a former member of the Lyon County library board, filed a complaint in June 2010 alleging he used his position to attempt to preserve his wife’s employment with the Lyon County Library System as budget cuts were being considered. A dozen allegations were forwarded to the commission for a hearing.

The complaint was filed after he resigned as county manager.

At the conclusion of his hearing in January, Stark was found to have violated ethics laws in one instance, when he met with a library board member to preserve his wife’s job. He was fined $1,000. He called the finding by the commission “ludicrous” and “miniscule in nature.” He also called the initial commission investigation skewed and biased against him.

Jenkins said the commission doesn’t characterize violations as major or minor.

“Mr. Stark was found to have willfully violated a provision of the ethics in government laws and a monetary sanction was imposed,” she said.

Stark said: “We do plan on appealing the decision that they made during the last day of the hearing based on the information contained in the transcripts. But until we have the final order we really don’t have a good handle on what we’re looking at. And this is crimping and stymieing my life and my ability to move out and earn an income.”

Audio clips:

Former Lyon County Manager Dennis Stark says he can’t move on with his life without the final order:

110411Stark1 :29 pay my bills.”

Stark says he plans on appealing the decision but can’t do so without the order:

110411Stark2 :27 earn an income.”

Ethics Commission Executive Director Caren Jenkins says the client base of the panel is huge:

110411Jenkins1 :34 to continue increasing.”

Jenkins says the effect of the inability to finalize the backlog of decisions is that public officers won’t have the guidance they need on ethics matters:

110411Jenkins2 :15 have been affected.”

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