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Nevada Court Overturns Some Convictions In Virgin Valley Water District Case.

Carson City, NV. July 19, 2019. Today the Nevada Supreme Court issued an order completely reversing the convictions of Robert Coache and partially reversing the convictions of Michael Johnson of several felony charges filed against them by the Virgin Valley Water Board (VVWB), Mesquite, NV. in 2008.

The State made an unsubstantiated claimed that the Virgin Valley Water District lost almost 8 million dollars in two separate Virgin River water transactions with John Lonetti, a Mesquite area landowner, businessman and water permit holder between 2005 and 2008. The transactions were presented to the Board when Mike Winters, was the General Manager of the District, Johnson was the Chief Hydrologist, and Coache was the Deputy State Water Engineer with the Nevada department of Water Resources. Winters and Johnson were both terminated from the Water District. Coache retired from the State.  Felony charges against Winters and Lonetti were dismissed.

As VVWD’s chief hydrologist, one of Johnson’s duties was to secure additional water rights for VVWD. While employed by VVWD, Johnson also engaged in private consulting work regarding water rights.  He provided private consulting services to Lonetti.  After helping Lonetti obtain a permit for additional water rights, Johnson orchestrated a sale and trade of those water rights between Lonetti, VVWD, and the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), for a substantial sum of money.

Coache was a deputy engineer and a chief engineer for the southern Nevada branch of the State Engineer’s office. In that capacity, Coache was responsible for the initial and final review of water rights applications in southern Nevada–conducting field investigations, analyzing applications, and making recommendations as to whether the State Engineer should approve or deny an application. Coache was also responsible for communications with the Carson City office, was the office’s “eyes” in southern Nevada, and worked with the public regarding the process and likelihood of receiving a permit for water rights.  The Carson City office relied on Coache’s advice when deciding whether to grant applications.

Johnson and Coach appealed their convictions of conspiracy to commit extortion by a public officer or employee, extortion by a public officer or employee,  conspiracy to commit asking or receiving bribe by a public officer, asking or receiving bribe by a public officer, and conspiracy to commit money laundering, and 44  counts of  money  laundering.

Nevada Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Gibbons, Justices Kristina Pickering, and James Hardesty ruled  “that there was insufficient evidence that Coache had any involvement with· granting Lonetti’s permit.   Therefore, the Justices concluded that any connection Coache may have had to the underlying scheme with Johnson could not have amounted to bribery.

The Justices also concluded that “there was not enough evidence that Coache received money in exchange for him performing his job or acting under color of his office with the State Engineer concerning the Lonetti permit application.

There is not sufficient evidence to show Coache knew the proceeds of the Madras [real estate] transaction with Johnson were derived from unlawful activity, rather than a legitimate real estate transaction, or that the transactions he made after receiving that money were with the intent to conceal it.  Particularly, the Justices said, “because Coache was not the one who orchestrated the permit sale and swap.  “Having found insufficient evidence for all Coache’s convictions, we decline to address the remaining arguments raised on appeal, and accordingly the conviction is reversed,” the Justices said.

The Court agreed with Johnson’s contention that there was not enough evidence to convict him of conspiracy.  In the ruling, the court said: “Having reviewed the record, we agree that the evidence is not sufficient for a rational juror to reasonably infer that Johnson and co-defendant Coache conspired to commit extortion by a public officer or employee,  asking  or  receiving  a bribe  by a public  officer, or money laundering.”

The majority on the court also reversed Johnson’s conviction for misconduct by a public officer since he had no official control over VVWD’s water rights.

However, the majority on the court felt that Johnson’s receiving a fee from Lonetti did constitute extortion and bribery and the convictions were not, as asserted by Johnson double jeopardy.  The majority on the court concurred with Johnson’s conviction for money laundering.

The court majority dismissed Johnson’s argument concerning the expiration of the statute of limitations by ruling that he and convictions are not barred by the statute of limitations since he waived those limitations during the trial and disagreed with Johnson that the court’s decision to not instruct the jury on certain contract provisions violated due process.

Chief Justice Gibbons concurred in part and dissented in part with Justices Pickering and Hardesty concerning Johnson and Coache.

Gibbons said I agree with the majority’s reversal of the convictions for conspiracy, misconduct of a public officer, and the money laundering counts stemming from Coache’s conduct. However, I would reverse the remaining convictions as well.  There was not sufficient evidence for a rational juror to conclude that Johnson was guilty of the offenses beyond a reasonable doubt.

Johnson has served his sentence and has been released.

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About Author

Michael McGreer Mesquite, Nevada
Dr. Michael Manford McGreer is managing editor of and writes on issues that impact public policy.

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