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The Grant Sawyer State Office Building as seen on Thursday, March 23, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Nevada and three other states tied for eighth place in how they enforce laws that try to avert conflicts of interest among public sector employees, an independent group said in a report released earlier this month.

The report, which gave Nevada a score of 83 out of 100, scored states on how many complaints were filed, how many ethics violations were found, what sanctions were imposed, and how much information about the ethics process is publicly available. The report was presented by the Coalition for Integrity (C4I), a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization that monitors corruption in the public and private sectors. 

“I think the ranking reflects the complete overhaul that the Nevada Commission on Ethics has seen since 2013,” said Yvonne M. Nevarez-Goodson, executive director of the Nevada Commission on Ethics, “and the Commission is very proud of what it has created and accomplished during the last decade, in part on the direct heels of winning an important constitutional case with significant national implications on conflict of interest laws before the United States Supreme Court in 2011.”

Nevarez-Goodson also said that if the report had taken the data from 2019 in addition to the prior three years, she thinks the commission would have ranked even higher. 

Nevada’s ethics agency last year received 55 complaints and dismissed 39 of those. Sixteen cases of ethics violations were either punished with fines, the largest being $2,160, or letters of caution.

Nevarez-Goodson said she believes the ethics commission would be stronger had SB129 not died in the 2019 legislative session. The measure, an omnibus bill sponsored by the governor and aimed at improving the commission’s processes, passed the Senate and an Assembly committee but was pulled from the voting list in the Assembly just before a deadline. 

“To say the least, the Commission was incredibly disappointed that the measure didn’t receive a final vote in the Assembly, and more disappointed not to have an explanation for the same,” she said. “These were all efforts in policy and legislative reform that would not have had a fiscal impact on the State, but would have eased many concerns for the Commission and staff in terms of processing cases.”

The Nevada Independent has requested comment from Gov. Steve Sisolak and legislative leadership on why the measure failed. The commission plans to bring some of the same concepts up in future sessions. 

Overall, the report found wide differences in ethics practices from state to state.

“The report on Enforcement of Ethics Rules reflects the huge variation in enforcement efforts by state ethics agencies – and the lack of transparency of those efforts in many states,” said Coalition for Integrity President and CEO Shruti Shah. “In addition to meaningful enforcement actions, state ethics agencies should strive to be transparent and publish information on complaints received, cases resolved, and sanctions issued.”

Nationwide, only 19 states publish annual or biennial reports about their ethics complaints and how they were handled. Nevada releases an annual report that highlights their actions regarding any ethics issues.

“Every ethics agency should publish annual reports on their enforcement efforts, even if not required to do so by statute,” report authors wrote. “Doing so demonstrates a commitment to effective enforcement and provides a deterrent to improper behavior.”

Thirty ethics agencies publish their enforcement decisions on their websites, while 15 do not publish any information about ethics violations. Eighteen agencies do not make their decisions or any sanctions public.

A top recommendation was that penalties should be meaningful. Fines of $100 or $200 are not enough to deter officials from being unethical.

“Most states have the authority to impose significant fines but do not do so,” report authors said. “A few states are limited by statute and, in these cases, the amount of the fines allowed should be increased via legislation to meaningful amounts.”

Sixteen of the agencies had issued fines over $10,000 where other states, such as Minnesota, impose a fee of $5 for failure to disclose financial reports on time. Even in regard to what is discussed as possible consequences, only Florida and Hawaii have recommended that officials be removed.

The Coalition for Integrity was formerly known as Transparency International USA, the American chapter of Transparency International (TI), an international, anti-corruption organization. TI was established in 1993 in Berlin and is known for its annual corruption perceptions index.

The corruption perceptions index follows 180 countries and indicates the level of corruption in the public sector. This has become their flagship research product and is used internationally as a de facto corruption measuring tool.  

Updated at 2:40 p.m. on Sept. 18, 2019 to add comment from Nevada Ethics Commission executive director. 

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