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In tie vote, ethics commission finds Reno mayor didn’t violate law

A vacant seat led to a 2-2 vote on an ethics complaint filed against Hillary Schieve that faulted her for not disclosing an attorney-client relationship.
Carly Sauvageau
Carly Sauvageau
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The Nevada Commission on Ethics found Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve did not violate a state ethics law Wednesday after a 2-2 vote. 

The vote stemmed from an ethics complaint filed against Schieve in early April 2023 when the mayor failed to disclose a professional relationship with McDonald Carano, a law firm that represents her personally but also worked on a home development project that came before the council.

"I have endured both stalking and baseless ethics allegations, and it's shameful that my personal safety has been exploited for political motives," Schieve said in a statement. "I appreciate the Commission for recognizing the unfounded nature of these accusations."   

A tie happened after a seat vacated by former Commissioner Barbara Gruenewald in October remained empty at Wednesday’s meeting, leaving the commission with an even number of voting members.

“You need a majority to find a violation,” Executive Director Ross Armstrong said after the meeting. 

The lawmakers who make up the Legislative Commission are responsible for filling the vacant seat, but Commission on Ethics Chair Kim Wallin said she hasn’t heard of any plans from the Legislative Commission to fill the seat that has been empty since fall 2023.

The Legislative Commission did not immediately respond to The Nevada Independent’s questions Wednesday afternoon about the vacant seat.

When it was time to vote, Wallin motioned to find Schieve in violation — including one wilful violation — of the ethics laws described in the April complaint against the Reno mayor. Commissioner John T. Moran III seconded the motion, but when Commissioners Scott Scherer and Stan Olsen were in opposition, the lack of a consensus left the case with no violation found.

Ethics Commissioner Amanda Yen had to abstain from participating in the ethics hearing because she is an attorney for McDonald Carano. Additionally, Yen, along with Commissioner Teresa Lowry and Vice Chair Thoran Towler, could not vote on whether the commission should form an opinion on the case because they were part of the three-person panel that did a preliminary review of the case in November. 

Now, the commissioners must work together to create a final opinion that reflects a consensus not reached by vote on Wednesday. The opinion will be up for approval during the next commission meeting in March.

In the meantime, because Schieve was not found in violation of ethics laws, she does not have to attend ethics training or pay any fines. 

“I’m glad it’s getting addressed because the law is very vague,” Schieve said on Sept. 29 after the Nevada Commission on Ethics review panel recommended the commission develop an opinion on the case. 

Case details

Schieve hired Adam Hosmer-Henner with McDonald Carano to sue Sparks private investigator David McNeely after he put a tracking device on her car during the 2022 election. Josh Hicks — another attorney with McDonald Carano — came before the city council on Feb. 22 representing Toll Brothers — a home construction company — to discuss a $30 million bond with the Reno City Council.

A complaint against Schieve filed April 3, 2023, by a source whose name was redacted, accused Schieve of violating ethics laws after she failed to disclose the attorney-client relationship with McDonald Carano during the meeting.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Jonathan Shipman, a City of Reno attorney who was representing Schieve, said that the mayor having to disclose a law firm she hired opens the door for public officials having to disclose any service they employ, using plumbers or bankers as an example.

Elizabeth Bassett, the attorney representing the Commission on Ethics, said that it has been established by the commission that an attorney-client relationship is likely to have an influence or perceived influence over a public office that triggers additional ethical obligations for public officers under the ethics law. 

"People engage law firms to assist them in matters that are significant to them: obtain money, protecting money, protecting their rights," Bassett said. "The trust or significance that they put in those attorney-client relationships are not the same as the plumber."

Wallin said that public officials can go to legal counsel when they are unsure if something is within ethics laws or not, which would provide a safe harbor for the official.

“We will not come down on an individual because they relied on the advice of their attorney," Wallin said.

Scherer said he worried ethics law was applied too broadly.

"I'm not sure that I agree [Schieve was in] violation, with all due respect to prior precedent," he said. "I still think she should have disclosed it."

After the meeting, Wallin said though she couldn’t say how a hypothetical tie-breaking commissioner would have voted, she would like to have a full commission again so public officials can be served fully.

For more information on how the Nevada Commission on Ethics works, check out our explainer.

Updated at 8:13 a.m. on 1/18/2024 to reflect Steve Yeager is no longer the Legislative Commission chair.

Updated at 4:13 p.m. on 1/18/2024 to include a statement from Hillary Schieve.

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