Nevada's Ethics Commission has painted itself into a corner by fining a couple of the state's most outspoken and visible critics. Now, the American Civil Liberties Union is going to court to find out just how much authority the Ethics Commission has.
To be precise, we should refer to the pre-Kenny Guinn Ethics Commission and the post-Kenny Guinn Ethics Commission. The governor has appointed four new members to the board, which has also hired an executive director and a lawyer.
Guinn vowed in his campaign to bring some reform to Nevada's ethics laws, and he's barely had a chance to get started. But the lawsuit filed by the ACLU should help bring some needed focus to debate on the commission.
The commission has over time issued some thoughtful and accurate decisions. But it has also made some decisions - most of them falling into the "no action" category - that left many of us scratching our heads.
And the decisions to fine Sam Dehne and Steve Miller for "frivolous" complaints seem to lend credence to Miller's argument that the commission has become "a political hatchet to be used to kill the messengers who expose certain corrupt politicians."
Dehne, in Reno, and Miller, in Las Vegas, are the kinds of pains in the butt that politicians would like to see eradicated (even though both are politicians themselves.)
They constantly complain about conflicts of interest, shady dealings and questionable decisions by the mayors and city councils of their cities. Unlike most critics, however, they do more than gripe - sometimes, they take an issue to the Ethics Commission with an allegation of wrongdoing.
In Dehne's case, it was Reno Mayor Jeff Griffin's dealings with the airport, where he has a contract. Among Miller's complaints is that a Las Vegas councilman has a personal relationship with a woman working for a refuse company that does company with the city.
These issues are far from frivilous - at least, in the eyes of taxpayers. Fining Dehne and Miller was clearly intended to discourage them from filing ethics complaints - not just frivolous ones, but any complaints.
Worse, it discourages every outraged taxpayer in the state from taking their complaints to the Ethics Commission. And it does, indeed, put the commission in the role of protecting office-holders rather than investigating them.
That's a very tight corner in which to be painted.