NEVADA — Some recent stories by, and about, Las Vegas Sun political reporter Anjeanette Damon point out the veracity of two phrases I’ve heard over the years.
Number one: A good journalist is only as good as his or her sources.
Number two: The best praise is that which comes from a respected colleague.
Damon’s coverage of the apparent misdeeds of seven Nevada state legislators, all Democrats, who failed to disclose how they spent portions of the campaign money they’d raised provides not only compelling and important reading, but also an excellent primer for other journalists monitoring the spending habits of politicians during this busy election cycle. The reporter’s first story appeared on February 17:
Many Democrats in the Assembly have not publicly reported the expenditure of thousands of dollars in campaign funds, including money for rent and living expenses during legislative sessions, the Sun has learned.
According to multiple lawmakers familiar with internal caucus discussions, the lawyer for Assembly Democrats instructed them that they do not have to report spending on expenses related to their public office—for example, rent in Carson City during the legislative session or travel to professional conferences.
In her initial report, Damon named three legislators who, according to Secretary of State Ross Miller—also a Democrat—had failed to meet the legal requirement of reporting their expenditures. But, with the cat out of the bag, four more Assembly members came forward within days to admit that they, too, hadn’t reported how they’d used campaign funds after getting the same legal advice: that they didn’t need to.
In a follow-up story on February 23, Damon noted:
In total, the lawmakers failed to report more than $40,000 raised for their campaigns.
The state pays lawmakers who live more than 50 miles from Carson City a $736 a month housing allowance during the session. All lawmakers also receive a daily per diem of $154 during the legislative session.”
[Las Vegas assemblywoman Lucy] Flores said many lawmakers use their campaign funds to cover expenses that exceed what the state pays legislators.
The headline to Damon’s third piece, an analysis on February 26, characterized the campaign donations as, in essence, “secondary income” for these legislators:
After the Sun reported the secret expenses, the Democrats then reversed course and filed new expense reports, detailing nearly $45,000 in campaign fund spending on a slew of living expenses during the legislative session in Carson City. These included rent, electronics, house cleaning and supplies, groceries, lunches and dinners at Carson City restaurants and even bottled water.
The lawmakers also paid for airfare and hotels to professional conferences in Hawaii, Texas and Florida.
The legislators tapped their campaign funds for these expenses despite the fact the state pays them a per diem for each day of the legislative session—whether they are physically in Carson City or not—to cover many of the same expenses.
Damon’s investigation has prompted reaction in print over the past few days. In a Tuesday op-ed piece in the Sun, Martin Dean Dupalo, the president of the Nevada Center for Public Ethics, took the public servants to the woodshed:
This was a purposeful act of withholding mandated public information that was uncovered by a journalist—not reported as part of a broader discussion between legislators and the executive branch, or much less the public.
To add insult, one politician publicly stated that the legal requirement to report campaign donations and how they are spent was too bothersome. The lawmaker, a graduate of the Boyd School of Law, said it would be easier to comply with the law if the taxpayers paid for a state employee to perform the task on her behalf. Except, of course, for expenses she deems personal.
A public office is for the public benefit and not for the officeholder’s private advantage. Furthermore, transparency is fundamental to an effective democracy, as secrecy is to a failed state.
One of Damon’s rivals even weighed in. Jane Ann Morrison, a former political reporter who’s now a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, publicly commended Damon in a Monday piece headlined, “What ever happened to ‘disclose, disclose, disclose’?”
Blatantly stealing from political satirist Stephen Colbert, I’m giving a tip of my hat to the Las Vegas Sun’s Anjeanette Damon and a wag of my finger to seven Assembly Democrats.
Damon did what I’ve never accomplished in all my years. She wrote a piece about campaign finance omissions and one week later, lawmakers caved and filed amended reports. It’s taken me decades of pounding on campaign finance issues to notice even minor improvements, much less an immediate turnaround.