Ethics investigator: Governor's tax break OK

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) " A Nevada Ethics Commission investigator concluded Wednesday that there's no evidence to support a claim by a state Democratic Party official that Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons pressured a local assessor to get an unwarranted property tax break.

Investigator Michel Vavra filed the report in advance of a Sept. 11 Ethics Commission hearing on the complaint over the $39.71 tax bill on 40 acres of land in scenic Lamoille, in Elko County, that Gibbons bought for $575,000 a year ago.

"The evidence does not support the allegations that Gibbons used his position in government to obtain unwarranted privileges," Vavra wrote, adding that the property met all the requirements under state law for the low agricultural use assessment.

Vavra also said there's no evidence that Gibbons or John Marvel, a lawyer and Nevada Tax Commission member hired by the governor to pursue the tax break, pressured the Elko County assessor, adding, "Like any citizen, Gibbons has the right to apply and to receive an agricultural use assessment, if his land qualifies."

Joe Aguirre, who just retired as the county assessor, had said the tax bill without the agricultural assessment would be about $5,000. But Vavra noted that Aguirre's office also had stated the annual bill would have been just under $1,900 " and the state Taxation Department had an even lower figure of $711.

Michael Pagni, another attorney representing the governor, filed a lengthy document Tuesday with the commission, arguing that the complaint was "unsupportable and specious" and that Gibbons was legally entitled to seek "the exact same assessment" that the Lamoille property had held "for decades."

Pagni also said Travis Brock, the executive director of the state Democratic Party who filed the complaint, claimed that Aguirre felt pressured by Gibbons but that's "false, and pure hyperbole."

"Whatever discomfort he felt was purely of his own creation and insecurities," Pagni said of Aguirre, adding, "It is clear that Mr. Gibbons did absolutely nothing whatsoever to trigger that discomfort nor preclude Mr. Aguirre from simply doing his job, regardless of whether that meant granting or denying the (tax deferment) application."

Aguirre, in his interview with the Ethics Commission investigator, said Gibbons didn't pressure him but he felt Marvel later "backed me into a corner" in a letter seeking the tax break. He added he felt pressured "with him being on a Tax Commission."

Gibbons bought the Lamoille property from former judge Jerry Carr Whitehead, who owns 3,000 adjacent acres. While the governor's property had been used for ranching, Aguirre has said that once it was sold as a separate parcel it didn't qualify for the tax break because the parcel was too small to be able to gross $5,000 in annual agricultural income.

But Pagni said experts at the Taxation Department stated that the property was capable of generating gross income of nearly $10,000.

Whitehead leased the land back for $5,000 a year so that he could continue to run cattle on the land. Gibbons hopes to eventually build a home on the land.

Instead of approving the agricultural designation, Aguirre did nothing, letting it take effect by default for one year. The governor will have to reapply next year to receive it again.

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On the Internet: http://ethics.nv.gov/

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