Official: Governor's defense fund legal

Gov. Jim Gibbons's defense fund set up to help with his legal hassles didn't violate Nevada's campaign finance laws, the state's top elections official said Tuesday.

In a letter to Gibbons, Secretary of State Ross Miller also said that he'll seek legislation to require reporting of donations to legal defense funds, treating them the same as campaign contributions, which must be disclosed. Existing state law is silent on defense funds.

Miller said he met with the Republican governor to discuss his defense fund contributions and Gibbons answered his questions and agreed to hand over copies of the checks to verify that $169,100 given in late 2006 actually went to the fund.

Miller, a Democrat, said he got the copies and could see that the checks "are separate and distinct" from contributions to Gibbons' gubernatorial campaign fund.

"Based upon your responses to our inquiries and the checks you provided, we find no apparent violations of the campaign finance laws," he said in his one-page letter to the governor.

Gibbons spokesman Brent Boynton said, "The letter speaks for itself. We got the letter and appreciate it."

Gibbons attorney Michael Pagni has said the defense fund, which had total donations of $194,100 as a result of a $25,000 check given after the start of the year, is down to just $1,100 and will be closed soon because two issues that prompted its creation have been dropped for lack of evidence.

The fund actually was created as a result of three cases, one of which is still pending: a legal dispute between Gibbons' longtime friend, multimillionaire federal contractor Warren Trepp and a former Trepp partner.

Gibbons has two lawyers, Don Campbell of Las Vegas and Abbe Lowell of Washington, D.C., helping him deal with FBI questions about his associations with Trepp. Gibbons has denied that he accepted payments or gifts from Trepp in exchange for helping Trepp get defense contracts while Gibbons was a member of Congress.

Pagni said in a letter last week to Miller that $92,561 of the money in the defense fund was paid out in 2006, mostly to Campbell's law firm and the rest to Pagni's firm. An accounting of the 2007 spending from the fund wasn't provided, although Pagni said a final report will be provided once the fund is closed.

The cases mentioned by Pagni as the basis for setting up the fund included a claim by Chrissy Mazzeo of Las Vegas that Gibbons assaulted her just before the November elections; and a claim by Martha Patricia Sandoval, an illegal immigrant, that Gibbons and his wife Dawn had employed her as a nanny years ago.

Pagni also had said he was "perplexed" by Miller's March 12 letter that stated an initial response to a March 7 letter from Miller didn't substantively answer questions raised by the secretary of state. Pagni said the information "already has been provided to your office, some of it multiple times."

In response to the second round of questions, Pagni detailed the $92,561 that went to the law firms, and repeated his argument that contributions to the defense fund aren't campaign contributions and aren't covered under state law.

Miller also asked why the fund information wasn't provided when a campaign finance report was filed in January. Pagni said Gibbons was busy dealing with his budget, State of the State speech and the start of the legislative session.

He also said the fund was handled by trustees and accountants, not Gibbons, and when the issue of the fund was raised recently the governor volunteered information even though it wasn't clear that was required.

The defense fund also wasn't sanctioned by a U.S. House committee even though Gibbons was still a congressman when it was set up. Gibbons spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin has said a House committee's approval wasn't sought because Gibbons, who served five terms in the House, was seeking election to a state office and not a federal office.


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