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Reno councilman’s ethics comments generate new ethical questions

John L. Smith
John L. Smith

It looks like it’s off to ethics study hall for attorney and Reno City Councilman Devon Reese after a State Commission on Ethics review panel determined he failed to abstain from voting on contract negotiations involving the city’s police and fire unions that also had a business relationship with his employer.

Reese works as an attorney at Hutchison & Steffen, which represents the Reno Professional Administrative Group and Reno Police Protective Association. After receiving a five-count complaint from a member of the public in September, a review panel in October unanimously found there was credible evidence that Reese had violated two ethics laws.

In issuing its reprimand in March, the ethics commission offered the councilman a deferral agreement. If he signs off, he will be required to avoid drawing another valid ethics complaint for two years, receive approved ethics training, develop an approved “disclosure and abstention check process” to use whenever Hutchison & Steffen clients do business before the council, and submit minutes from all Reno City Council meetings that reference his law firm’s clients for one year.

Wrist slap complete and case closed, right?

Not so fast.

After reading Reese’s glib public statements to the press in the wake of the reprimand, I’m guessing he won’t be the only public official and member of the State Bar of Nevada heading back to ethics class. Reese wasn’t exactly contrite:

“I appreciate the Commission’s diligent and thoughtful work on this. Ethics is an area of law that is about defining the gray areas, which can be difficult. Two lawyers can see the same facts and apply legal ethics differently. It is not a cut and dried area defined in statute, but a series of close judgment calls. …

“It is my belief and understanding that the ethics opinion agrees with me and is also saying that I should continue to be vigilant, and develop a clear plan for addressing this in the future. I believe this opinion is saying that I did handle the matter to the best of my ability, despite how the legalese of it may be read by some looking to make an issue of it.’

Actually, councilman, it’s the state ethics commission that made an issue of it. Any legalese notwithstanding, the finding appears to simply be saying that Reese violated two ethics laws despite his legal training. He needs to take a refresher course and disclose and abstain in the future.

Now comes the potentially sticky part, as provided by Reese to Reno News 4:

“I do want to say this: when this situation arose, I asked the city attorney’s office if I needed to disclose that a lawyer at my law firm does some work for RPPA, or even go so far as to abstain from voting on issues regarding the police contract. The advice and opinion of the city attorney’s office was that I did not need to do either. I felt like it was important to go above and beyond in terms of transparency so I disclosed the relationship to the city attorney, the city manager, our HR Team, my colleagues and for the public on the record anyway.”

Talk about awkward. It sounds like he spoke to just about everyone at city hall.

Reese says he sought the advice and opinion of experienced government attorneys and officials before, according to the state ethics review panel, he committed two ethics law violations. That doesn’t say much for the advice he received from those presumably professional city officials.

His comments raise questions about his colleagues that only further investigation can answer. Hasn’t Reese put them on the spot, especially those who are members of the State Bar of Nevada?

That’s a question I asked former State Bar President Margo Piscevich. Now retired from private practice, during her tenure as president the Bar Board of Governors enacted mandatory ethics training as part of its continuing legal education for all attorneys.

“First of all, he should know the difference and so should his firm,” Piscevich says. “They should know a conflict of interest when they see one. Secondly, if he went to them (city officials) to see if it was OK to vote and they said yes, then I think they need to be investigated as well.

“Devon Reese should understand ethics. Any lawyer that passed the bar and is current in his licensing, which I presume he is, should have known that without even having to ask for advice. That would be my opinion. If there is confusion, call the State Bar.”

And that begs the question of whether the State Bar will investigate this ethical mashup. And whether Reese received legal advice from Reno City Attorney Karl Hall that violated state ethics laws.

Unless the state ethics review panel is in err, Reese and his colleagues should have some explaining to do — in public.

Whether the councilman took bad advice or no advice, it’s time to cut through the — what’s the word? — legalese.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR.


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