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Assembly Majority Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson on the first day of the legislative session on Feb. 4, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Sexual misconduct claims against Storey County Sheriff Gerald Antinoro loomed over a hearing Monday for Assembly Bill 397, which would enable the Nevada Equal Rights Commision to recommend the impeachment of elected officials facing accusations of sexual harassment.

Assembly Majority Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson, who presented the bill to the Committee on Government Affairs, said the proposed legislation would help hold publicly elected officials accountable, especially at the local level. In addition to applying to state officials, the bill provides a mechanism for removing local elected officials, such as county commissioners and sheriffs.

“This bill seeks to establish accountability for elected officials by giving Nevada Equal Rights Commission the ability to make a recommendation of impeachment when an elected official has demonstrated egregious behavior,” Benitez-Thompson said during her testimony.

The bill would permit the commission to present an accusation to a local grand jury if there was evidence that sexual harassment was “sufficiently severe” to warrant removing a local elected official. The commission would be required to hold a hearing before taking action.

Benitez-Thompson, a Reno Democrat, said such a process would provide recourse to staff and other subordinates who might currently feel conflicted about speaking out against their bosses.

“When a complaint is made against a local official, such as a county commissioner or a City Council [member] or a sheriff, a local entity’s human resources department is conflicted because that person is essentially their boss,” Benitez-Thompson testified. “A county manager or a city manager serves as an at-will subordinate to that elected. There can never be a remedy for the employee because there is no way to remove that elected person from office.”

Although Antinoro’s name was not directly referenced in the hearing, his case was referenced throughout the 30-minute discussion. Antinoro is facing multiple accusations of sexual misconduct and rape, as well as state and federal lawsuits filed by his former chief deputy. In an interview with NPR, Antinoro denied the allegations, saying he believes they are part of a coordinated smear campaign. (Antinoro could not be immediately reached for comment after the hearing.)

Rick McCann, the executive director of the Nevada Association of Public Safety Officers, was visibly frustrated with the Antinoro case during the hearing. He said his union was in full support of the bill, noting that Antinoro, without directly naming him, has been a problem for years.

“I deal with one elected official up North who is a problem,” McCann said. “And we all know what we’re here to talk about. I have a problem, and have had for two years, with an elected official who has basically been able to say this to the system. For the record, I just put my finger up.”

“Elected officials get in trouble,” he continued. “The counties or cities pay. There’s no personal exposure to the elected official. We’ve seen a lot of it in this building the last couple of years — maybe six years. But it happens in some of the counties too. And they affect my law enforcement officers. And damn it, it’s going to stop.”

Under current law, the ethics commission can remove officials if they are found to have willfully violated three ethics laws. In the past, the commission has found that Antinoro has violated two ethics laws (he is appealing both rulings, according to NPR). The full commission is expected to review a third claim over whether Antinoro wrongly used his badge in campaign materials.

Benitez-Thompson’s bill requires damages levied against an elected official to be paid out of their own pocket rather than with taxpayer money or campaign contributions. The proposed bill would also permit the Ethics Commission to submit a recommendation for impeachment to the Assembly, which has the sole authority for impeachment under the Constitution.

Jamie Rodriguez, who leads government affairs for Washoe County, said the county was in favor of the bill, noting that it would remove the conflict inherent in investigating a superior.

Representing the Nevada Women’s Lobby, Marlene Lockard called the measure a “bill of last resort” but said it was crucial that the public have a process to remove local elected officials.

“It allows our objective regulatory agencies and a court to protect the citizens of this state from predatory individuals who have been able to successfully manipulate the system,” she said.

The Equal Rights Commission testified neutral on the bill. But the commission recommended a friendly amendment to change the definition of what constituted a removable accusation from “significantly severe” to “significantly severe and pervasive,” a standard used by courts.

The legislation is co-sponsored by Speaker Jason Frierson.

Benitez-Thompson said such measures have been a long time coming.

“I really do believe that one of the trends in having more women elected — the trend in being the first female majority [Legislature] — means that we have a comfort level to talk about this stuff,” she said. “I honestly don’t know that I would have had a comfort level bringing this kind of legislation but for feeling like I’m in a workplace where I can have this conversation.”

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