Indy Explains: How does the Nevada Commission on Ethics work?
The Nevada Commission on Ethics was thrust into the spotlight this week when the eight-member group decided Gov. Joe Lombardo had violated state ethics laws by wearing a sheriff’s badge in campaign ads and was issued a $20,000 fine — the largest ever since the commission’s creation in 1975 — as well as a censure.
Though Lombardo may have been top of mind last week, the commission oversees various levels of government. From city councils to county commissions, public officers and employees in the executive branch are overseen and occasionally investigated by the Nevada Commission on Ethics. Employees or officials in the legislative or judicial branches of state government are not subject to commission oversight, but have other entities that oversee ethics rules and conduct.
Ross Armstrong, the executive director of the commission, said people — namely government officials — may not be aware of the resources the board provides to demystify ethics laws and ensure they are in compliance with the laws.
“What we see is that the vast majority of folks who might end up on the wrong side of an ethics complaint weren't fully aware of the ethics law,” Armstrong said in a phone interview with The Nevada Independent. “They [may have] had some training when they first became a public employee long ago and they haven't really kept up on it. So we’re just trying to figure out ways to make people think about ethics every once in a while as they go through their public work career.”
But with terms like “willful violation” and processes such as deferral agreements that stop short of a full sanction, it’s easy to misinterpret ethics laws. Armstrong said there is often confusion about what the commission can do and who it can investigate — it can order training and impose fines, but cannot issue criminal charges or send someone to jail.
Here’s a deeper look at how the Nevada Commission on Ethics works:
What is the Nevada Commission on Ethics?
The Nevada Commission on Ethics is made up of eight members, four appointed by the governor’s office and four appointed by the lawmakers on the Legislative Commission. If someone is interested in becoming a member and a seat is vacant, they can submit an application to one of these organizations to express their desire to be appointed.
State law outlines several requirements on who can be appointed to the Nevada Commission on Ethics.
In total, there can be no more than four members of the same political party on the commission at one time. There also can’t be more than four members from the same county.
In addition to these rules, the governor’s office and the Legislative Commission are required by state law to appoint at least one attorney licensed to practice in the state of Nevada and two appointees who have been former public officials — though there are members that fill both requirements. If a member of the Nevada Commission on Ethics decides to involve themselves in a campaign or political organization, they must resign their seat on the commission.
Commissioners cannot serve more than two consecutive four-year terms.
Armstrong said commissioners all either have day jobs or are retired, and receive a $80 stipend per meeting, which must happen at least once a quarter. The low pay coupled with the strict membership requirements can make appointments challenging, Armstrong said.
“One of the requirements is that in order to be a commissioner, you can't be actively involved in any political party or campaign,’ Armstrong said. “They have to find people who are passionate about good government that are also willing to not be involved in a political party or campaign.”
The Nevada Commission on Ethics also employs other full-time staff members, such as the executive director and associate counsel.
Who is on the commission?
The acting chair of the Nevada Commission on Ethics is Kim Wallin, a Democrat who served as Nevada’s state controller from 2007 to 2015. The vice chair is Brian Duffrin, a nonpartisan and former chief of administration for the Nevada Gaming Control Board.
Three other active ethics commissioners are also former public officials. Democrat John T. Moran III is a well-known Las Vegas gaming attorney and a former Nevada System of Higher Education regent, who served one term from 2017 to 2023. He is also the grandson of former Clark County Sheriff John Moran.
Teresa Lowry, a Democrat, was a Clark County assistant district attorney in the 2010s, serving on various committees and boards. She ran for state Senate as a Democrat in 2014.
Attorney Thoran Towler, a nonpartisan, was the CEO of the Nevada Association of Employees in 2016, and also served as the Nevada labor commissioner from 2011 to 2014.
Democrat Barbara Gruenewald is an attorney who specializes in insurance cases and is based in Reno. Republican Amanda Yen joined the commission in 2016 and is a Las Vegas-based attorney with the firm McDonald Carano, focusing mostly on commercial and complex litigation and appellate law.
Along with Moran, Republican Stan Olsen is one of the newest members of the commission. Olsen previously served in the Legislature for less than a year in 2010 after he was appointed to serve out then-Republican Sen. Warren Hardy’s term, but did not run for re-election and instead returned to his career as a lobbyist. He is also a former police officer for Henderson and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
Lombardo appointed Olsen and Moran earlier this year. Duffrin and Towler were appointed by former governors. In 2016, former Gov. Brian Sandoval appointed Duffrin to the commission and in 2020 former Gov. Steve Sisolak appointed Towler. The remaining commissioners were appointed by the Legislative Commission.
Armstrong has been the executive director for Nevada Commission on Ethics since December 2021. Before his time on the commission, Armstrong was an administrator for the Nevada Division of Child and Family Services. Armstrong also served as a deputy administrator for the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health in 2017.
Armstrong said his first real job with the state was as a special prosecutor for the state attorney general’s office, with a territory running from Pahrump to Hawthorne.
Elizabeth Bassett is the Ethics Commission’s associate counsel, a position she has held since May 2021. Before her time with the commission, she was also a staff attorney for the Nevada Supreme Court from 2011 to 2017.
What the Nevada Commission on Ethics does
The Nevada Commission on Ethics has three main responsibilities: education, outreach and handling ethics complaints.
“An important thing to know is the complaint process is just one of our three main functions,” Armstrong said.
He said that because the complaint process often gets the most media and public attention, people often forget there are other things that the commission does, specifically preventative measures.
The Nevada Commission on Ethics provides training for public organizations that want their employees to be up to date on ethics laws.
Armstrong said the commission is also working to modernize its programs through educational videos on its YouTube channel as well as the forthcoming Nevada Ethics Online — a system for public officers and employees to complete ethics training virtually, incorporating smaller lessons and quizzes to check for comprehension.
The commission is also working to develop its outreach, Armstrong said. It does this in part by checking in with the Nevada League of Cities and the Nevada Association of Counties (NACO) to make sure that public officers and employees are aware of the ethics resources available to them, as well as by promoting resources on ethics through social media.
The ethics complaint process
Anyone can submit a complaint to the Nevada Commission on Ethics. However, because the commission only deals with violations of state ethics laws, its jurisdiction is limited.
Though the commission handles conflicts of interest involving public employees and officers for campaigns, public bodies voting on official business and myriad other ethics law violations, Armstrong said the commission has no jurisdiction over open meeting laws, private companies and organizations or any decision a local government makes that doesn’t relate to state ethics laws.
Once a complaint is filed, the commission will review it and determine whether there is an ethics issue and a report is made detailing the situation. Armstrong said from this point, the commission has several paths they can take.
If the commission finds they have no jurisdiction over the complaint, it is dismissed.
In other other instances, the commission can accept jurisdiction but decide the complaint can be handled by giving the subject a letter of caution or a letter of instruction, letting them know how they can comply with ethics laws and avoid the problem in the future.
The commission can also open an investigation, a process that would be spearheaded by Armstrong as the executive director of the commission.
The associate counsel — an attorney who is also a staff member — works with the executive director and an on-staff investigator to complete an investigation. The subject of the complaint then receives a formal notice and has the opportunity by law to respond within 30 days.
Formal notices are sent by mail and if an official doesn’t respond, the commission will serve them in person, just like any other legal notice.
In between the formal notice of an investigation and the investigation’s conclusion, there is a review panel process. Sometimes after an investigation, Armstrong may determine that there has been no violation. He would then refer this recommendation to a three-commissioner review panel, and they would determine if the case had no violation and could be dismissed.
However, the review panel could also determine that the best course of action would be to close the case and issue a letter of caution or instruction. Other times, the panel will decide there is an ethics violation, but the person deserves the chance to “kind of get back in compliance with the ethics law,” Armstrong said, through what is known as a deferral agreement.
Armstrong defined a deferral agreement as “a mechanism by which we can establish certain requirements for the person who is the subject of the complaint. And typically there's what we call a deferral period — a certain amount of time [typically two years] where they have to show that they can comply with the ethics law. Some of those conditions typically require training. They might require going back and taking a look at the policies or procedures.”
If the subject of the complaint completes all of the requirements, the complaint is dismissed and the subject will have no violations found against them.
If the review panel determines sufficient evidence exists to refer the matter to the full commission, then a date will be set for an “adjudicatory hearing,” when the commission will determine if there is an ethics violation in a public meeting. If the commission determines there is an ethics violation, they will determine if it is a willful or non-willful violation — essentially if the person knowingly violated ethics laws.
“A willful violation is more serious than a non-willful violation,” Armstrong said. “And the commission will take a look at seriousness given the nature of the offense, the center of gravity of the violation, the number of violations.”
There are other factors as well, such as if the subject of the complaint received financial compensation for the questionable conduct and if they are responsive to prior chances to comply with the law or have a history of ethics complaints.
After the seriousness of the alleged violation is determined, the commission will decide the next course of action. Though the commission can impose fines and order a subject to take action, there is a limit on what it can do.
What power does the Nevada Commission on Ethics have?
“The commission is limited by ethics law itself and what it can do to respond to a violation,” Armstrong said.
Though the commission can mandate a public officer or employee who has violated ethics laws to complete ethics training and in some cases pay a fine, Armstrong said the major purpose of the commission is to ensure compliance with ethics laws in the future.
“There is no criminal liability for ethics violations,” Armstrong said.
If the commission discovers criminal conduct while investigating the ethics complaint, they can make a referral to a criminal court, but there's no jail time or jail sentence that the commission can impose. That’s a power reserved for the criminal justice system.
This does not mean that an opinion from the Nevada Commission on Ethics does not hold significant weight. If a state employee is found in violation of ethics laws, their employer may terminate them in certain instances.
Armstrong said that in order to protect the subject of a complaint from losing their job, there is language in deferral agreements stating that an individual has been “found in no violation” of the ethics laws even if they are required to comply with the commission’s ethics training or other recommendations to have their violation recognized as resolved.
There are also limits on fines. For the first willful violation, a public officer or employee’s fine cannot exceed $5,000. This maximum financial penalty doubles for a second willful violation, and is brought to $25,000 by the third willful violation.
Regardless of whether the violation is willful, if the subject’s unethical conduct results in financial gain, the commission — in addition to any other penalties provided by the law — can require the subject to pay a civil penalty of not more than twice the amount gained by the subject.
Armstrong said though he has only been with the Ethics Commission for 18 months, it isn’t unusual to see complaints filed against public officers or employees to make them look bad.
“We’re particularly cognizant of that during election season,” Armstrong said.
However, he said the commission doesn’t look too much into the individual filing the complaint.
“What we will take a look at is the facts and the law,” Armstrong said.
Though there are officials who have wilfully violated the ethics laws and people who try to avoid the commission altogether after they have been notified of their wrongdoing, Armstrong said a majority of people who are the subject of ethics complaints aren’t aware they have violated the law.
In order to prevent ethics complaints involving people who are simply unaware of the complex nature of ethics laws, the commission is emphasizing its education and outreach programs, including by recruiting a public information officer this fall.
Armstrong also said that though people should be aware of the seriousness of an Ethics Commission investigation, being the subject of an ethics complaint doesn’t necessarily mean the person isn’t good at their job.
“When the Ethics Commission or our investigation team is taking a look at something, that doesn't mean that that individual is necessarily a bad public official, it means that there's an issue in the compliance with the ethics law that we're trying to address,” Armstrong said.