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Indy Explains: How public employees can avoid ethics violations during campaign season

The use of public uniforms, staff time and other resources to boost a campaign can attract a fine from the Nevada Commission on Ethics.
Carly Sauvageau
Carly Sauvageau
ElectionsState Government
Kim Wallin, Chair of the Nevada State Commission on Ethics during a hearing of the commission involving a complaint that former Clark County Sheriff and current Gov. Joe Lombardo used the accoutrements of his Sheriff’s office while campaigning for Governor in the 2022 election, at the Legislature in Carson City on July 25, 2023. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

When then-Clark County Sheriff Gov. Joe Lombardo was running for governor in 2022, he often appeared in his tan police uniform and badge in campaign ads. But donning the accouterments of a public office in campaign materials is a multi-faceted legal minefield  — both for Lombardo, who is in the middle of an ongoing ethics case and lawsuit over the outfit — but for many other candidates in the same boat.

Ethics cases can cover a wide range of campaign activities: from police and fire chiefs using their uniforms to campaign and endorse other candidates, using public employees’ staff time toward a re-election bid or using a county law enforcement notification app for political promotions.

Nevada Commission on Ethics Executive Director Ross Armstrong said during an interview with The Nevada Independent last summer that most officials are unaware they have violated state ethics law. 

Last month, the Nevada Commission on Ethics held a briefing for candidates, campaign staff and the general public to highlight what those vying for an elected government position can do to avoid an ethics violation and an accompanying reprimand or fine ahead of the 2024 election season.

Here’s a closer look at what candidates need to do to stay in compliance with ethics laws:

Where did ethics laws originate in Nevada?

Though laws against corruption have existed in the U.S. Constitution since the nation’s founding, formalized financial disclosure systems and ethics policies were not systemized or readily available to the public until the mid to late 1970s, following the Watergate scandal. 

The federal government adopted a new set of ethics laws in 1978, but three years earlier, the Nevada Legislature passed the Ethics in Government laws, which created the Nevada Commission on Ethics.

The Nevada Commission on Ethics enforces ethics laws by keeping government officials accountable when they violate the rules and educating public servants on statutes so they can prevent violations before they happen. 

Who does the Nevada Commission on Ethics have jurisdiction over during elections?

The Nevada Commission on Ethics oversees and occasionally investigates ethics complaints made against public officials including mayors, city council members, county commissioners, sheriffs, fire chiefs, school board trustees, state legislators and executive branch officers. 

The Nevada Commission on Ethics does not have power over public officials outside of a state or local office, such as the president or members of Congress. The commission also doesn’t oversee private individuals and businesses, during an election or otherwise. If a candidate does something unethical in their private business but is not holding public office, they will not be held accountable by the ethics commission.

Though the public elects judges, complaints made against public officers working for the state’s judicial branch are handled by the Standing Committee on Judicial Ethics.

What resources can public officials use during campaigns?

Public officials cannot use public funds, government email accounts, or government resources to promote their own or another person’s campaign. 

A public official can donate their own money to a campaign as well as endorse a candidate while holding an elected office — such as when a mayor endorses a candidate — as long as they don’t use government property to do so. 

Though a public official receives their salary from public funds, those dollars are considered private funds once paid to the official. However, the officer cannot use funds allocated for other public uses for personal gain.

Those elected by the public also cannot use government uniforms or equipment to campaign.

Some recent — and common — examples of this include government officials who have campaigned while wearing their police uniforms or posing in front of publicly owned fire trucks. 

A high-profile recent example is when Lombardo used his uniform in campaign material for governor when he was the head of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. 

In early January, Judge James Russell dismissed a lawsuit filed by Lombardo challenging the Nevada Commission on Ethic’s decision to censure and fine the governor for his use of government materials in a campaign. Lombardo’s attorneys said they plan to appeal the ruling.

Henderson Councilman Jim Seebock is also being investigated by the commission when he used his uniform as an assistant sheriff to campaign for his current seat.

Reno Fire Chief Dave Cochran received an ethics violation in 2023 when he appeared in a political ad for Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) in uniform and posed in front of a publicly owned fire truck. 

Technology such as government-operated social media accounts, emails and notification systems are also considered public resources that cannot be used for campaigning. 

Washoe County School District Trustee Adam Mayberry faced an ethics complaint when his campaign was promoted on a mixed-use school district social media account that had posts related to government business as well. 

The commission determined there was insufficient evidence against Mayberry to determine the act was a violation, but Armstrong said it was a complaint that could have been avoided if he had maintained separate accounts for campaigning and official school board business.

Government officials are not allowed to use emails associated with their public work to campaign. An example of this is when in 2014, Clark County School District members faced complaints when they used their work emails to promote a bill that would have increased funding for school improvements.

Publicly operated notification systems, typically used for emergency or news announcements, are also prohibited for campaigns, such as when Undersheriff Eric Blondheim used the Pershing County emergency notification system to promote Adam Laxalt for Senate in 2022.

Candidates who are public officers also cannot use the labor of other government employees during work hours for campaigning. 

One of the most well-known ethics violations in Nevada was a case of a public official using subordinates to campaign. Former state Controller Kathy Augustine used office workers and equipment on state time for her re-election campaign in 2002. As a result, Augustine was impeached, the first time a state official had been impeached in Nevada’s history. Augustine was censured, but not removed from office.

If a candidate is unsure, how can they guard against an ethics violation?

Armstrong said during the ethics training that candidates can avoid an ethics conflict by ensuring that they use separate email and social media accounts and other technology for campaigning. The separation can help keep a boundary between personal and government technology and ensure the candidate doesn’t unwittingly violate ethics laws. 

Structuring time specifically for campaigning can also help prevent a possible overlap between public work and personal use.

Government officers should also keep in mind the resources they can’t use for campaigning, such as uniforms, equipment and staff. 

Candidates can also contact the Nevada Commission on Ethics if they are unsure if a resource is off-limits for campaigning. Government officials and employees can ask the commission for a confidential advisory opinion to assess if a situation violates ethics laws. However, Armstrong said these opinions can take up to 45 days to complete.

The Nevada Commission on Ethics also has a resources page that includes slides from the campaign ethics briefing that can help public officers educate themselves on ethics laws.

To find out more about the Nevada Commission on Ethics, click here to read our explainer


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