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Lombardo spurned ethics commissioner's reapplication ahead of major vote, emails show

Democrats have accused Lombardo of stacking the ethics commission with allies ahead of his own case regarding him wearing sheriff's regalia during his campaign.
Tabitha Mueller
Tabitha Mueller
State Government
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Days before a high-profile Nevada Commission on Ethics hearing on a potential $1.6 million fine for using his sheriff’s badge and uniform during his 2022 campaign for governor, Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo appointed two new members to the eight-member board — both of whom later voted against fining or censuring the governor.

Emails obtained by The Nevada Independent indicate that Lombardo made the new appointments despite a former Republican commissioner expressing interest in serving another term. 

Records show that Lombardo’s staff did not directly respond to a request for reappointment from former three-term Assemblyman James Oscarson (R-Pahrump), who served as a deputy floor leader in the Legislature and was appointed to the commission by former Gov. Steve Sisolak in 2021. Oscarson, whose term on the commission expired on June 30, was considered a moderate in the Legislature and was respected across the aisle for taking a tough vote for taxes even though he represented a deep red district.

Instead, the governor appointed former Henderson and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police officer Stan Olsen to the commission. Email records show Lombardo made the decision after appointing John Moran III, a former regent and the grandson of a former Clark County sheriff, to the eight-member board in May to replace former Commissioner Damien Sheets, who was appointed to the commission by Sisolak in January 2020 and resigned on May 17 over concerns that the commission’s investigation into Lombardo was politically motivated.

The governor appoints half of the commission's eight members, and lawmakers on the Legislative Commission appoint the remaining four. Commission members can serve up to two four-year terms. ​​There can be no more than four members of the same political party on the commission at one time, and there also can’t be more than four members from the same county.

Olsen and Moran were the only two dissenting votes in the board’s 4-2 decision on July 25 to censure and fine the governor $20,000 for using his sheriff’s uniform and badge during his 2022 gubernatorial campaign (two commissioners were precluded from voting because they served on the preliminary review panel on the case).

Olsen declined to comment for this story.

In March 2023, Oscarson joined three other commissioners in a vote to sanction State Fire Marshal Joseph Rodriguez for using his uniform and badge in campaign materials while running for a spot on the Washoe County School Board. Another three commissioners abstained from the vote, and one commissioner was absent.

Democratic critics of Lombardo have suggested that the timing of the appointments, coupled with their votes on Lombardo’s case, represent a conflict of interest and effort to stack the commission with allies ahead of the hearing. 

A Lombardo spokeswoman responded to questions about the governor’s appointment on Tuesday via email, saying that “there is no conflict of interest” surrounding the appointments.

“Furthermore, the insinuation that individuals with law enforcement backgrounds are not suited to serve on the Ethics Commission demonstrates a disturbing anti-police bias,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Ray wrote. 

Ray did not directly answer why the governor did not reappoint Oscarson. 

“All governors, including Governor Lombardo, take a number of factors into deciding whether to appoint or reappoint individuals to boards and commissions,” she wrote.

Ray noted that the governor has made three total appointments to the commission, two of whom (Moran and Scott Scherer) are attorneys whom she noted had previous experience on the commission, and one (Olsen) is a former state senator with law enforcement experience. She said all three appointees would uphold the letter of the law and serve without partisanship or political vendetta. 

Asked in July about a potential conflict of interest in the appointments, Ray said in an email that Moran and Olsen “both demonstrated supreme integrity and impeccable character throughout their decades of public service.” She added that Lombardo had the “utmost confidence” they would serve with “complete fairness and impartiality.”

During a phone interview Friday, Oscarson said Lombardo called to thank him for his service and inform him that he would not be reappointed to the commission. Oscarson said he didn’t remember when the phone call took place.

Asked whether he would have voted to censure and fine the governor had he been on the commission, Oscarson said he did not have access to the information in the briefing packet or all arguments because he was no longer a commissioner. He said he could not say how he would have voted in the case.

The governor has the opportunity to appoint whomever he chooses, Oscarson said.

In her email to The Nevada Independent, Ray confirmed that Lombardo called Oscarson to thank him for his service on the commission. 

“Governor Lombardo also informed Mr. Oscarson that he would proceed in appointing a new member on the Ethics Commission, in an effort to bring new leadership to the commission that is unequivocally committed to honesty, fairness, and transparency,” she wrote.

The new appointments also came after two hearing delays requested by the governor; the case was originally scheduled for June 13. The first delay was because of an ongoing special session. The second was because attorneys for Lombardo complained that the only commissioners available to weigh in on the matter were either Democrats or Sisolak appointees — an arrangement they claimed was unfair.

In October, attorneys for Lombardo filed a lawsuit appealing the ethics commission’s decision. The case awaits a hearing scheduled for May in the First Judicial Court in Carson City.

In the appeal, Lombardo’s attorneys are challenging the constitutional authority of the commission itself, stating that because the Legislature appointed half of the commission members, the makeup of the commission violates the state constitution’s separation of powers principle.

An email trail

The issue of Lombardo’s use of so-called office accouterments in his campaign for governor arose after two complaints were filed in October 2021, kicking off a multiyear investigatory process by the state ethics commission. 

A legal analysis submitted in June 2023 by attorneys working for the ethics commission marked the first public move by the commission to address the complaints. 

On March 16, 2023, Lombardo’s administration received the first email indicating Oscarson was interested in being reappointed to the ethics commission. In the email, the commission’s executive assistant asked Lombardo’s director of boards and commissions, Adina Fitzgerald, how an ethics commissioner should apply for reappointment after a  term expires.

The next day, Fitzgerald responded with an email containing links and instructions for reapplying to a state board or commission.

At the beginning of May, commission Executive Director Ross Armstrong sent an email requesting a call with the governor’s office to discuss the status of the reappointment application. 

Though subsequent emails indicated that an employee of the governor offered a time to talk, Armstrong sent a follow-up email to Lombardo’s spokesperson on May 2, stating that he’d received the message that Lombardo appointed Moran to the commission but noted, “we have one Commissioner waiting on word for reappointment.

“In the past we have fired off press releases when new members are appointed but this is our first go at this with the new administration and so I wanted to make sure we weren’t stepping on any toes if we prepare those releases,” Armstrong wrote.

Ray replied by giving permission to release information about Moran’s appointment but did not address Oscarson’s outstanding reappointment application.

On July 6, Armstrong followed up with Fitzgerald, asking for an update on Oscarson’s reappointment, saying that his term had expired a few days earlier on June 30. 

“Thank you for your email,” Fitzgerald responded. “The Governor is scheduled to sign appointment documents in the upcoming weeks. You will be notified when an appointment decision has been made.”Thirteen days later — and six days before the commission held its hearing on Lombardo’s use of his sheriff and badge in his campaign — Lombardo publicly announced that he had appointed Moran and Olsen to the commission.

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