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Indy Fact Check: Republican AGs open fire on potential candidate Ford, mostly miss mark

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford speaks with other legislative leaders on June 5, 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford has yet to announce his 2018 intentions, but the anticipated candidate for attorney general is already under fire from Republican-aligned groups taking the early initiative with 16 months to go before Election Day.

The Republican Attorneys General Association — which in 2014 spent an estimated $1.8 million in Nevada — is taking aim Ford with a pixel-art inspired website calling the top Democratic senator a “radical liberal” and urging readers to “tell Aaron Ford it’s GAME OVER.”

“As one of the most liberal members of the State Senate, Ford has voted to turn Nevada into a sanctuary state, protecting dangerous criminals who are here illegally,” the website reads. “Ford even ignored decades of sexual harassment complaints against a fellow Democrat state senator to preserve the Democrat state Senate majority.”

It’s not surprising that groups outside Nevada already have their eyes on the attorney general position — the office served as a launch pad for current Gov. Brian Sandoval and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, and may serve as such again by the current attorney general and likely gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt.

And outside of Ford, Assistant Attorney General Wes Duncan has all but announced a bid for the state’s top legal job, setting up a likely high-profile statewide race showdown in 2018.

Though it’s hard to tell just how much reach radicalaaronford.com has, these lines of attack against Ford are more than likely to make repeat appearances over the next year and a half, so we wanted to get a head start in seeing just how accurate they are.

The group didn’t respond to multiple emails and a call for comment, but Ford spokesman Peter Koltak did provide a two-page email response pushing back on the attacks.

Sanctuary Cities

The website states that Ford was a “primary sponsor” of SB223 during the 2017 legislative session, and says it would have “prohibited police in Nevada from using resources for immigration enforcement.”

It is true that Ford was one of five primary sponsors of the bill, but that doesn’t mean he was the primary driver of the legislation. Typically, bills are requested to be drafted by an individual lawmaker — in this case, Democratic Sen. Yvanna Cancela — with fellow legislators joining on as either “primary” sponsors or co-sponsors. Ford was listed as a primary sponsor along with Cancela and Sens. Tick Segerblom, Julia Ratti and Mo Denis.

But after more than a month of behind-the-scenes discussions and negotiations with lawmakers, law enforcement and immigration officials, the bill died without ever receiving a hearing — which makes it inaccurate to claim that Ford “voted” for the policy.

In fact, Ford was the primary driver in quietly scuttling a planned hearing on the bill in late March, just days before Cancela and others announced that the concept wouldn’t be moving forward during the legislative session (Nevada Independent reporter Megan Messerly wrote an expansive piece on the issue and the fate of the bill back in April).

But what about the rest of the claim, insinuating the the bill would have turned Nevada into a “sanctuary state” that would lead to “dangerous criminals” being protected from deportation?

To start, there is no officially defined federal or state designation of a “sanctuary” city or state, despite the term’s ongoing use as a political football. The only supporting evidence provided by the group is a link to the bill’s text, and no Nevada jurisdictions have declared themselves to be “sanctuary” jurisdictions.

As originally drafted, the bill would have prohibited local law enforcement agencies from cooperating in federal immigration activities — such as detaining individuals, transferring people to federal authorities or other police-related activity — unless directed via warrant from a district court or federal immigration judge.

The RAGA website is too broad when it claims the bill would have prevented police “from using resources for immigration enforcement,” as local law enforcement would still be able to work with federal immigration authorities as long as a warrant was issued.

Law enforcement officials throughout the state opposed the measure during the legislative session, in part because it raised the possibility of Nevada forfeiting federal funding -- a January executive order issued by President Donald Trump directly aimed to “ensure that jurisdictions that fail to comply with applicable Federal law do not receive Federal funds.” They also said it threatened existing agreements between federal and local police agencies over immigration, such as one between the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

That agreement, for example, led to Metro sending 1,482 notifications of prisoners booked in the Clark County Detention Center to ICE in 2016, with 173 transferred into federal custody. Nearly 1,600 notifications were sent out in 2015, and 104 people picked up by federal authorities.

Cancela proposed a significant amendment to the measure in late March that would have scrapped the bill entirely and instead prohibited state and local police from asking about a person’s immigration status at the point of contact, such as a traffic stop or other initial police response.

Local police agencies — including Metro —  already have similar policies already in place, but police agencies continued to oppose the measure throughout the session over fears that any state law potentially restricting cooperation with federal immigration enforcement could result in lost federal funding.

Sen. Mark Manendo

The group also sharply criticized Ford for allegedly putting off disciplining fellow Democrat Mark Manendo after multiple accusations of sexual harassment because Ford needed to “preserve his one-vote majority” in the state Senate.

Manendo — a senator who has served in the Legislature since 1994 — has been accused of sexual harassment several times while in office, most prominently in 2003 when then-Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins ordered the Legislative Counsel Bureau to investigate claims against Manendo. Perkins later said the report was inconclusive, but stripped Manendo of his committee chairmanship that session.

So is Ford guilty of having “ignored” decades of complaints against Manendo to maintain his majority in the state Senate?

The new investigation was announced in early May and is still ongoing at press time. Ford was the driving force behind calling for it. Manendo and Ford later jointly agreed that he should resign his chairmanship of the Senate Transportation committee in late May, roughly two weeks before the end of the legislative session.

With or without Manendo, Ford would still have had a working majority on his side. Sen. Patricia Farley — a former Republican who changed her party affiliation to nonpartisan before the start of the legislative session — caucused and voted with Democrats throughout the legislative session on all but a handful of issues, effectively giving the party a 12-9 edge in the Senate. Even subtracting Manendo from the mix, the Democrats still would have had a 11-9 edge.

And on the hectic final day of the session, Ford publicly admonished Manendo on the floor of the state Senate for “engaging in conduct that I believe to be unbefitting of a Senator.”

A spokesman for Ford said that the senator deserved credit for taking the “unprecedented” step of ordering an independent investigation into the allegations.

“Manendo has served under Republican and Democratic leaders, yet Ford is the only leader to ever have ordered that a professional and independent investigation be undertaken,” Koltak wrote. “He has purposely taken no action to interfere with that investigation, allowing the investigators to work at the pace they deem appropriate to consider all complaints in a thorough, fair manner.”

Part of the difficulty with policing legislative behavior is that state lawmakers are essentially exempt from oversight from the state’s Ethics Commission, and are instead charged with policing themselves through legislative ethics committees, which rarely meet. Though legislators are granted constitutional authority to remove their own members, the Legislature has only ever done so once in 2013, expelling Assemblyman Steven Brooks after a period of highly erratic behavior and death threats made against a fellow legislator.

The joint standing rules of the Assembly and state Senate were changed in the final minutes of the legislative session to implement new rules on sexual harassment charges and streamline the filing of complaints.

Voting rights for felons

The site also slams Ford for attempting to “give felons the right to vote” while opposing “common-sense voter ID laws.” It also claims the legislation “would even allow felons to run for office.”

While Ford sponsored a bevy of criminal justice reform-centered bills during the 2017 legislative session, the site specifically singles out one measure — SB125.

That bill as introduced would have reduced the amount of time a convicted and released felon has to wait before they could petition a court to seal their criminal history, and allow lower-level felons on parole or probation have civil rights such as voting or serving as a juror automatically restored after a year or upon completion of the terms of the parole.

The measure passed on party lines out of the Senate, but Assembly members stripped out the voting restoration provisions before passing it on a 35-6 vote and sending it to Sandoval, who signed it into law on May 31. Elements that expanded rights restoration to a larger pool of ex-felons, including those who had a dishonorable discharge from parole or probation, passed in a separate bill, AB181.

Though the website claims Ford’s bill would “give felons the right to vote,” it overstates the bill’s significance — convicted felons in certain circumstances already had the right to cast a ballot in the state or even run for office. Legislators in 2003 approved a measure automatically granting voting rights back to certain non-violent or one-time felons upon completion of probation, allowing them to serve on a jury four years after that and run for office six years after being successfully discharged from probation.

Legislators including Ford did approve a minor change allowing dishonorably discharged felons to run for public office as part of a slew of civil right restorations included in AB181, but the website makes no mention of that specific bill.

Ford did say during testimony on SB125 that he’d personally prefer if Nevada was similar to Vermont or Maine, “where you never lose your right to vote.

His bill never attempted to change state law regarding eligibility for public office for ex-felons, though, so the website’s claim that the legislation “would allow felons to run for office” isn’t true.

Voter ID

A spokesman for Ford didn’t deny the senator’s opposition to voter ID laws, calling it “100 percent true” and an “unnecessary waste of taxpayer dollars.” Ford staunchly opposed the concept during the 2015 session, and Democratic leadership killed many Republican-sponsored election bills including a measure by freshman Assemblywoman Lisa Krasner that would have required showing identification to vote.

Verdict:

An attack site targeting likely attorney general candidate and state Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford claims that the Democrat “voted to turn Nevada into a sanctuary state,” ignored sexual harassment complaints against a fellow senator for political gain, sponsored a bill that would allow felons to vote and run for office, and opposes voter ID laws.

There are kernels of truth sprinkled throughout this website, but they’re few and far between. Ford was a sponsor of the “sanctuary state” bill, but the measure never came up for a hearing, much less a vote, and he played a key role in spiking it. While Ford could have taken the largely unprecedented step to try to remove Manendo from office during the legislative session, it’s not fair to say he “ignored” claims of sexual harassment given his call for the independent investigation and later stripping the embattled senator of a committee chairmanship once facts were obtained via the investigation. And while Ford did sponsor a bill that would make it easier for certain felons to re-obtain the right to vote, the site gets some basic facts wrong about existing Nevada law regarding the restoration of voting rights.

Because many of the claims made on the site have factual errors, are misleading, or require much more context to successfully understand, we rate it a Hardly Abe!

Feature photo: Democratic Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford speaks with other legislative leaders on June 5, 2017. Photo by David Calvert.

False
True
Verdict: Hardly Abe
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