Earlier today, Kelvin Atkinson (D-North Las Vegas) resigned as State Senate Majority Leader upon pleading guilty to criminal charges relating to his misuse of campaign funds for personal expenses. His misdeeds were condemned across the political spectrum as Senator Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) quickly replaced him as the Senate’s new leader.
So problem solved? Not quite. Here’s why this political scandal runs far deeper than one single politician. If anything, this is the latest bit of evidence implicating our entire sordid system.
Let’s just get to the root of the problem here.
In case you were wondering, (politicians’ sanctimonious condemnations of each other’s) campaign finance hijinks is one of my biggest pet peeves. I’ve written about the subject quite a few times, and here I am writing about it again today.
Every election cycle, we have some sort of campaign finance scandals. All the way back in 2010, we noticed as Republicans were chiding then State Senate Majority Leader (now U.S. Rep.) Steven Horsford (D-North Las Vegas) for engaging in the same kind of “aggressive fundraising” they did. A year later, we noticed as former Assembly Member (and future Congressional candidate) Morse Arberry (D-Las Vegas) plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge related to his funneling of $120,000 in campaign donations into his personal bank account. And two years after that, we noticed as Assembly Member turned Brian Sandoval Chief of Staff (and now State Senator) Heidi Gansert (R-Reno) kept campaign funds after she left office and moved them into a PAC that dispersed those funds into other Republicans’ campaigns. And every so often, we endured yet another round of hand-wringing over the long list of politicians who took donations from the disgraced developer-turned-convicted felon Harvey Whittemore.
These are just a few examples of the many corruption scandals that have blown in and out of the Nevada Legislature this decade. There have been some occasional efforts to clean house, most notably when then Secretary of State Ross Miller (D) proposed SB 49 in 2013 to strengthen campaign finance reporting requirements. The bill was watered down in the Senate, then was amended further in the Assembly, then died in conference committee during the final days of that session. If nothing else, 2013’s SB 49 offers a cautionary tale of what happens whenever anyone attempts even modest steps toward real campaign finance reform.
So what did he do, and what will we do about it?
Let’s fast forward to today: Kelvin Atkinson just resigned from the State Senate after pleading guilty to federal charges of misappropriation of campaign funds for personal use. Governor Steve Sisolak (D), Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), and Assembly Member and Nevada State Democratic Party Chair William McCurdy (D-Las Vegas) all condemned Atkinson’s misdeeds while commending his decision to resign, while Republican leaders pointed to Atkinson’s guilty plea possibly being tied to former Las Vegas City Council Member Ricki Barlow’s pleading guilty to misusing some $66,000 in campaign funds in 2015 as they intimated that this scandal could “extend further”.
Perhaps we’ll get another 48 or 72 hours of Republican leaders “expressing concern” and feigning outrage as Democrats tout Atkinson’s fast ouster and replacement by new Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) as proof that the state “turns the page and moves forward”. While it does seem fitting that Cannizzaro, herself targeted by a sleazy recall campaign backed by shadowy special interests, is the Senate’s “new top cop”, one new leader won’t fix this old problem that goes far deeper than merely one politician.
And make no mistake, this is one very old problem. It can be traced all the way back to the state’s early days of giving mining industry titans whatever they wanted, and it runs all the way through “the good old days when the mob ran this town” to “G-sting” taking down several Las Vegas politicians.
So what will we actually do about it? Will we continue to wring our hands and point fingers until it’s all swept under the rug all over again? Will we agree to a few tweaks here and a handful of nips and tucks there until we feel better because we did something? Or will we actually demand real reform that gets to the heart of the problem: the secrecy that surrounds the money corrupting our system, and ultimately the corrupting power of that money itself? Unless and until we get to the root of this problem, we’re only pruning to keep up appearances.