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.
To earn those kudos, Damon relied on her well-developed network of sources. In an email to me, she explained how she got the scoop:
I received a tip from a source that Democrats in the Assembly had received legal advice that they were not required to report all of the money they spent from their campaign fund on expenses not directly related to their election. The lawmakers were told that if they spent money on expenses related to their official duties (a legally valid way to spend their money), then they didn’t have to report those expenses on their campaign contribution and expenditure forms.
My next step was to get that confirmed. Another source confirmed the legal advice. Next, I had to prove that some lawmakers had indeed followed the advice and failed to report all of their expenses. I knew from covering the Legislature for many years that a couple of individual lawmakers paid for their Carson City housing from their campaign funds. I went to their disclosure forms and could not find those expenses listed. I confirmed with those lawmakers that they had followed their lawyer’s advice and did not report. I asked many other sources if they knew of any other lawmakers who hadn’t reported and came up with a possible list. I wrote the story based on the first three lawmakers. After the story ran, seven Democrats filed amended expense reports. I used the Secretary of State’s disclosure database to locate those individuals and wrote a follow up story.
Damon invoked an old adage—“You don’t know what you don’t know” —as she continued her recap:
Honestly, the story never would have come together if I hadn’t received a tip, or if people hadn’t been talking about it in enough circles that it got back to me. If they had all kept mum about what they had done, they could have continued hiding expenses without being caught.
Damon says she’s continuing to keep in touch with Nevada’s Secretary of State. He’s the person who will need to decide whether campaign finance laws were broken and, if so, whether prosecutions should be sought.
In the meantime, the veteran political reporter has some advice for colleagues:
This is a story that proves your sourcing can be just as important, if not more so, than your ability to comb through public documents. I used both approaches in reporting this story and it did take some persistence. I would say to get as many facts straight as you possibly can before approaching the lawmakers you suspect of a questionable activity. In this case, almost every lawmaker was honest when asked directly about the expenses. Had they decided to deny what they did, I needed to have enough information to prove them wrong.