Former lawmaker pleads not guilty to campaign finance crimes detailed in grand jury records
Former Assemblyman Alexander Assefa’s (D-Las Vegas) name has been in the news since last March, when the representative of Assembly District 42 was charged with stealing thousands of dollars from his campaign and lying on government forms.
But a full picture of Assefa’s alleged crimes remained tightly under wraps until recently, when transcripts of a secret grand jury proceeding were publicized as part of his ongoing criminal case. Those records allege that Assefa used his position and personal story to take advantage of the Ethiopian community — hosting fundraisers where thousands of dollars were pocketed for personal use — and say he claimed to live in an apartment where police ended up finding no men’s clothing or grooming products to back up that story.
Now, more than a year later, Assefa will be given the opportunity to counter those claims in court, after pleading not guilty on Thursday to charges stemming from his alleged theft of thousands of dollars from his campaign and repeated lies about his residency on government forms.
The attorney general’s office first pressed charges against Assefa in March 2021, just two months after he resigned from his position in the Legislature. At the time, Assefa cited a “mistaken” understanding of the residency requirements that state lawmakers must physically live in the district they represent and said he held a “sincere belief” that the district was his place of residence.
But the findings of a police investigation — revealed as part of testimony that led to a grand jury to indict Assefa last month — indicated that the former legislator lived at a North Las Vegas residence 15 miles away for years before his run for office.
Assefa’s plea of not guilty comes two weeks after the grand jury impaneled by the Clark County District Court indicted Assefa on 14 charges, including a dozen felony counts.
The secret grand jury proceedings, which are typically used by prosecutors to determine whether they have probable cause to pursue criminal charges, featured testimony from investigators and people who knew Assefa commenting on evidence collected by the state.
Witnesses interviewed by state prosecutors before the grand jury detailed at least three occasions where Assefa pocketed thousands of dollars raised at campaign events for personal or business use, oftentimes at events that heavily relied on his connections with the region’s Ethiopian community. They also interviewed former roommates and others who confirmed that Assefa continued to maintain his primary residence outside of his district — a violation of state law.
Assefa first moved to the U.S. in 2000, after growing up in Ethiopia and spending time as a refugee in Kenya, and in 2006, he moved to Las Vegas. As a manager of Kib Transport, a Las Vegas-based motor carrier, he campaigned early as a small business owner, and he founded a transportation workers caucus with the county’s Democratic Party.
Following the proceedings, which featured only the jurors, prosecutors and witnesses and no judge or defense attorneys, the grand jury indicted Assefa on all 14 charges, meaning they found probable cause that Assefa was guilty but made no final judgment of guilt in the case.
Assefa joined his arraignment hearing on Thursday via video conferencing with his attorney, pleading not guilty to all 14 charges and waiving his right to a speedy trial. The meeting lasted less than five minutes.
He is not in custody, and his trial date was set for August 23.
Community connections and theft
Girma Zaid, who runs a business called Diaspora International Consultants in the Ethiopian Eritrean community, said he was approached in 2017 when Assefa was first planning his Assembly run.
Zaid told members of the grand jury that he was moved by Assefa’s concerns about working conditions of Ethiopian cab drivers and housekeepers in the hotel industry, and contributed $500 to Assefa’s campaign.
Heading into his re-election in 2020, Assefa indicated to Zaid that he was consumed by the day-to-day work in the Legislature on behalf of the Ethiopian community and that he was financially hurting.
Zaid helped organize a large fundraising event for Assefa with religious leaders and scores of locals from the Ethiopian community that helped the legislator secure more than $12,000 in mostly small-dollar donations.
With the money collected, Zaid suggested to Assefa that he rent office space. He found a landlord who was willing to give the space free of charge for six months and charge a dollar per square foot. But Assefa tried to lower the cost and eventually declined the offer when the landlord didn’t budge.
Zaid became concerned that Assefa wasn’t showing progress on using the money for the campaign, and confronted him with two other community members. He asked him to return the money to the donors, and Assefa agreed to do so. Zaid said he did not follow up to see if he returned the money, but no office space was rented or leased anywhere for Assefa’s campaign to his knowledge.
Yitbarek Hilu and Hiwot Kinde were active members of the Ethiopian community and became involved in Assefa’s campaign, working in various fundraising events.
At a November 2019 fundraising event at the United Way, Hilu learned that Assefa’s business was “damaged.” Hilu quickly understood that the campaign donations would be used for Assefa, and not Assefa’s campaign. He had helped raise a total of nearly $11,900 that day.
Kinde was one of the volunteers at the event, and recalled hearing Assefa discuss his financial woes. She said those who sympathized with Assefa’s speech left donations after the event was finished, and she suspected the pledges that were made personally benefited Assefa.
One donor who attended that 2019 fundraising event was Yohannes Asres, a self-employed tax preparer and an insurance agent. He told the grand jury that at no point was he under the impression that Assefa intended to use his donation to the campaign for personal gain.
Despite multiple alleged acts of theft, Assefa also showed a dedication to advocating for the Ethiopian community in Assembly District 42. He was the first Ethiopian American elected to the Legislature, and he spearheaded an effort to designate a cluster of businesses in the Spring Valley area as “Little Ethiopia.”
In his resignation letter in January 2021, Assefa wrote that he made himself available to members of the community, including organizing food banks and helping with applications for unemployment insurance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I created a venue where people could seek help and information,” he wrote. “I helped immigrant parents who cried in my office challenged by children with substance abuse issues or family disputes due to cultural differences. If I couldn't offer immediate help, I steered them in the right direction.”
Misreporting campaign funds
Colin Haynes, a senior financial intelligence analyst with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, testified that a cross check of banking records and campaign finance reports revealed Assefa had funneled thousands of dollars raised during official campaign events into his own bank account for personal use, and had freely mixed funds among his campaign, personal and business accounts without marking them on campaign finance reports.
He described a handwritten document found at Assefa’s residence that detailed the revenue ($10,000) and costs ($3,400) of an April 2018 fundraiser hosted at a church event center. Haynes said that nearly $6,700 in cash was given to Assefa at the conclusion of the event, but that nearly half of the expenses and most of the funds raised were not listed on Assefa’s campaign finance report.
Another handwritten document obtained from Assefa’s residence detailed more than $2,900 in funds raised at a November 2019 campaign event that Haynes said was never reflected in Assefa’s campaign finance reports — but the same dollar amount was deposited in his personal bank account a day after the event.
Most of those funds came through credit or debit transactions collected through a Square card reader manned by an Assefa campaign volunteer, who then cut a personal check for the same amount to Assefa, who also cashed two checks collected at the event (with “donation” listed on the memo line) into his personal account.
Police also found another handwritten note detailing revenues and expenses from a third fundraising event in mid-February 2020, which raised roughly $27,000. More than half was not documented in campaign finance reports; investigators allege that even if vendor payments were made, about $9,400 was still missing.
Additional ATM receipts showed that in the days leading up to and after the event, Assefa deposited about $9,100 into his personal bank account.
“Based on my investigation of Mr. Assefa's finances I had no source of cash income that could account for that money,” Haynes told the grand jury.
Haynes also described bank records showing Assefa transferring $5,000 from his campaign account to his personal account in February 2019, which wasn’t documented on campaign finance reports. The same day, he transferred $7,600 from his personal account to his business bank account, which primarily went to cover payroll and pay independent contractors at his business. Two days later, he transferred $3,000 back to his personal account.
Haynes interviewed Assefa when police executed the search warrant, and recalled asking the former legislator about the $5,000 transfer. Assefa reportedly said it “might have just been a mistake, he couldn’t really recall … he put it in the wrong account.”
Six months after the search warrant was executed, Haynes said Assefa transferred about $30,000 back into his campaign account from a variety of sources not listed on his campaign finance reports. Haynes was unable to pinpoint where the money had come from.
Lies about residency
When Assefa filed his candidacy for Assembly in 2018, he reported living at a condominium at Bella Vita, a complex located near Decatur Boulevard and Harmon Avenue in the Spring Valley area west of Interstate 15 and the Las Vegas Strip.
Though voter registration records show Assefa lived in that same apartment complex in Assembly District 42 for several years, dating back to 2007, the police investigation into Assefa found he lived miles outside of the district for more than two years before his run for office.
In November 2015, Assefa appeared to have moved into a house on Sweet Jenny Court in North Las Vegas, in a neighborhood just south of the Las Vegas Beltway near the crossroads of Losee Road and Centennial Parkway. At the time, he sent a text to a person identified as “Jose neighbor,” inviting the neighbor to a housewarming get-together at the North Las Vegas residence, which was located in Assembly District 17.
The police investigation also found texts from Assefa’s phone throughout 2017 and in March 2018 indicating he continued to live there. In response to one message, “Text your home address please,” Assefa gave the North Las Vegas address.
Evidence suggests that Assefa continued to live there throughout 2018, 2019 and 2020, even as he won his race and went to Carson City to represent Assembly District 42 — 15 miles south.
Isabel Rivera told jurors that she rented a room from Assefa at the five-bedroom North Las Vegas residence in the summer of 2018. Rivera said she saw Assefa and his wife, an employee at Harrah's casino, at the house everyday during her stay there. Another person, Alexander Cheung, said he also rented a room from Assefa between October 2019 and July 2020, and saw Assefa and his wife on a regular basis.
In May 2020, police conducted searches at the North Las Vegas address and at a second address within the Bella Vita apartment complex, which Assefa used when filing to run for his second term in 2020.
At the apartment located within Assembly District 42, police officers found Assefa’s mother, and a search revealed no men’s clothing or grooming products that would suggest he was actually living there. A neighbor who helped translate the conversation between officers and Assefa’s relatives told officers that Assefa was last at the apartment a few weeks prior.
At the North Las Vegas residence, police officers encountered Assefa in front of the house and additionally found IDs and credit cards in Assefa’s name during their search.
Evidence of Assefa living in North Las Vegas for years contributed to two charges against him for filing a false declaration of candidacy form in regard to his residency, one for 2018 and the other for 2020.
Additional tracking of one of Assefa’s phone numbers found that from April 2018 to May 2020, there were only three days in which Assefa’s phone connected to phone towers servicing residences at the Spring Valley area apartments between the hours of 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. — overnight hours used as framing for when many people are typically sleeping at their homes.
Assefa’s alleged lies about his residency also contributed to charges stemming from a false voter registration made in 2017 and false change of address form filed in 2020.
Updated on April 14, 2022 at 11:25 a.m. to include details from Assefa's court hearing and not guilty plea.
The Nevada Independent is raising $200,000 by Dec. 31 to support coverage of the 2024 election.
Tax-deductible donations from readers like you fund this critical work.
If you give today,your donation will be matched dollar-for-dollar.