Ethics panel clears Gibbons of wrongdoing

A two-member panel of the Ethics Commission ruled Thursday there isn't any evidence to support accusations that Gov. Jim Gibbons illegally used his position to get a tax break on his Elko County property.

Tim Cashman and Erik Beyer disposed of the allegations in a hearing that took just over 30 minutes, ruling that, if former Elko Assessor Joe Aguirre says he didn't feel pressured by the governor, there isn't "just and sufficient cause" to send the charges to a full-blown hearing of the Ethics Commission.

They also ruled that Gibbons' lawyer John Marvel didn't pressure the assessor for the tax break, which saved the governor nearly $2,000 a year in property taxes.

"I don't see any pressure put on the assessor by Mr. Marvel," said Beyer during the hearing, which was open to the public at Gibbons' request.

Gibbons said the complaint filed by the Democratic party is evidence "they will go to any lengths to undermine me."

"Now the public is fully aware there is nothing to these outrageous charges," he said. "I think there are a number of people who owe the governor an apology in this matter."

Gibbons requested his property continue to receive the agricultural land tax break it had before he purchased it from former judge Jerry Carr Whitehead. With that break, the property tax bill for the four-acre parcel dropped to just $39.71.

Aguirre was originally reported to have said he felt uncomfortable and pressured by Gibbons and Marvel into granting that tax break. He has since changed his story to say Gibbons didn't pressure him at all but that the situation made him feel uncomfortable.

Commission investigator Mike Vavra said in his report that there was no evidence of pressure by either Gibbons or his lawyer and that Gibbons qualified for the tax break.

"If the subject of this issue says he felt no pressure, I'm not sure we can find that the governor used his position," said Beyer.

Cashman made the motion stating that "just and sufficient cause does not exist for the commission to rule that the governor put undue pressure on the assessor."

The original story said Aguirre questioned whether the land qualified because, at just 40 acres, it couldn't generate the $5,000 annual revenue needed to be considered agricultural. Gibbons later provided copies of checks for more than that amount from Whitehead, who leased the property back to graze cattle.

But Vavra said that according to the Taxation Department, it is Whitehead who needs to show the $5,000 annual revenue from his agricultural operations, not Gibbons, and that, with nearly 3,000 acres of grazing land, Whitehead can easily show that amount of revenue.

The panel also disposed of questions about whether Gibbons violated statutes by inappropriately using his office because the tax documents were sent to the governor's office, not his home, and that he inappropriately used a subordinate - Marvel - who sits on the Tax Commission.

The panel ruled the mail issue was a "deminimus" use of the governor's office and not a problem. They found that, while the governor appoints tax commission members and could ask Marvel's resignation, that Marvel was hired because he is an Elko attorney who specializes in land cases and that the governor doesn't have direct control over his actions on the tax commission.

The ruling means the case is dismissed and will not go to a full hearing before the Ethics Commission.

• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at gdornan@nevadaappeal.com or 687-8750.

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