Augustine case prompts legislative proposals
Concerned that the Nevada Senate was too soft on state Controller Kathy Augustine in convicting her on one count of campaign ethics violations, two senators are pushing plans to tighten campaign laws and help workers who blow the whistle on errant bosses.
Two other counts against Augustine were dismissed Saturday at the end of Augustine’s Senate trial – the first of its sort in state history. While she could have been removed from office, senators merely censured the two-term Republican controller.
During the trial, state workers who went to the attorney general’s office with information on her in-office campaign activity in 2002 testified that they had first sought help from the state Personnel Department – and were advised nothing could be done.
The former top-level employees complained they were bullied into doing campaign work and feared losing their jobs if they didn’t comply. Another refused to do the campaign work and quit the agency.
“State employees need to wake up and realize after this impeachment hearing that something needs to be done to protect them. Whether they’re classified or unclassified, the law is there to protect them,” Sen. Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, said following Augustine’s trial.
Carlton said the employees’ testimony prompted her, during a break in the trial, to request a bill draft that would help employees get a proper investigation by Personnel rather than have their complaints brushed off.
Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, said Monday that she’s proposing legislation to make clear that an incumbent candidate who has a state staffer fill out a campaign finance report is violating the law.
A Legislative Counsel Bureau legal opinion that surfaced in the middle of Augustine’s trial held otherwise, and undercut a key part of the case against the controller – whose chief deputy refused to complete the finance report and said the campaign work cut into office productivity.
“We know what’s ethical or unethical but if it’s not in the law you can’t enforce it,” said Titus, who with Carlton favored Augustine’s conviction on all three impeachment articles submitted to senators by the state Assembly.
“The public needs some reassurance,” Titus added. “This (trial result) must make them feel cynical, that it’s business as usual and politicians are protecting their own – but not all of us feel that way.”
Besides the two proposals from Carlton and Titus, there’s a renewed move in the Assembly to pass a measure that would get rid of Augustine’s office and give its duties to the state treasurer.
Also developing is a proposal from Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, D-Henderson, to create an ethics violation threshold that, once crossed, would result in an official’s automatic removal from office. Perkins also says some ethics violations aren’t now considered crimes and could be. Any felony conviction also means automatic removal.
Perkins said the Assembly voted unanimously to impeach Augustine and he’s disappointed with the Senate decision because “it seems as though it was a slap on the wrist.” But he added the Assembly didn’t have an actual trial.
Assembly Majority Leader Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, predicted all the proposals will get broad support – at least in the Assembly – as a result of Augustine’s trial.
Titus’ plan to include campaign finance reports as political activity that shouldn’t be imposed on unwilling state employees makes sense, Buckley said, adding, “If that’s not campaign activity, I don’t know what is.”
Carlton’s proposal also is a good idea, Buckley said, adding, “I don’t understand why these employee complaints (against Augustine) were swept under the rug in the first place.”
Bob Seale, who first proposed the combined office in 1995, when he was treasurer, has said that as a newly elected assemblyman, he will champion the measure.
Senators voted Saturday to officially reprimand Augustine after convicting her on a 14-7 vote – the minimum two-thirds majority needed. That was after the other two counts were dismissed, and special prosecutor Dan Greco said he could no longer justify seeking her ouster. He suggested Augustine be suspended for two months without pay from her $80,000-a-year job.
But defense attorney Dominic Gentile said a censure was enough, noting that Augustine already had been fined a record $15,000 by the state Ethics Commission and had “the scarlet letter of impeachment permanently emblazoned on her.”
The dismissed charges alleged that Augustine should have known an employee was doing political work on state time for her 2002 re-election campaign, and that a state computer also was used for the campaign.
The remaining count alleged she should have known that other office equipment and facilities were used for the campaign.