Nye County DA probe and prosecution pose problems
LAS VEGAS – As uncomfortable as it was, slapping handcuffs on Nye County District Attorney Bob Beckett may have been the easy part.
Now authorities in the rural county west of Las Vegas must navigate a maze of little-used procedures and looming conflicts to bring a first-of-its-kind criminal case to trial.
“This appears to be unprecedented in Nevada history,” former State Archivist Guy Rocha said of the May 5 arrest of the sitting elected district attorney.
“I talked to people who are pretty damned knowledgeable, north and south,” Rocha said, “and no one’s ever heard of this.”
Nye County sheriff’s deputies arrested Beckett, 49, in Pahrump after interviewing him about irregularities in a bank account his office managed for more than 13 years.
Beckett was booked on more than 40 counts including embezzlement, but he has yet to be formally charged. That job is usually handled by the district attorney’s office.
Beckett can’t prosecute himself, so someone else will need to review the investigation and determine how – or perhaps whether – to proceed.
Sheriff Tony DeMeo and department administrators have been researching what to do next.
DeMeo says his office will ask the Nye County Commission to hire an outside attorney. That attorney will be expected to ask a state District Court judge to appoint a special prosecutor.
“We want this to be a clean process,” DeMeo said.
Patty Cafferata knows something about rural Nevada justice. The former state treasurer, assemblywoman and head of the state Ethics Commission also served separate stints as district attorney in Lander, Lincoln and Esmeralda counties. She predicts that Beckett’s case will require the appointment of both a special prosecutor and a judge from outside of Nye County.
“It’s just the nature of the beast,” Cafferata said. “They’re small communities. They’re small legal communities. I think they would have some conflicts there.”
Nevada’s Fifth Judicial District has two judges to hear all cases in Nye, Esmeralda and Mineral counties.
One is Robert Lane, who once was a deputy prosecutor under Beckett.
The other is John Davis, who has held the job for two decades, and easily won a fourth six-year term in 2008 after trouncing Beckett in the primary.
Davis said he could preside over Beckett’s case without prejudice, but it makes more sense for him to step.
“The only conflict I have is he wanted my job and I didn’t want him to have it,” the judge said, “but I think that’s a sufficient conflict.”
Davis added, however, that his past with Beckett should not preclude him from hearing preliminary motions in the case, including the appointment of an outside attorney.
The real goal, Davis said, is to find someone who can take an unbiased look at the investigation and determine the best course of action.
“Maybe the right thing is to dump the whole case. I don’t know,” he said. “You’ve got to look at it objectively.”
Davis has been called on to pick a special prosecutor only once before.
About a decade ago, the judge had to find a new prosecutor and defense attorney for the third trial in a murder after two previous convictions were overturned on appeal.
Davis said an “intolerable animosity” developed between the prosecution and defense during the first two trials, so the case had to be assigned to new attorneys.
Cafferata said when conflicts arise in local cases, the Nevada attorney general’s office can step in.
But spokeswoman Edie Cartwright said the agency has no plans to step into the Beckett case. She called it a county matter.
State prosecutors would also have to deal with a potential conflict of their own.
A challenger for Beckett’s seat is Brian Kunzi, a deputy state attorney general and 11-year Pahrump resident who heads the insurance fraud unit.
Further complicating the matter is Beckett himself.
He called a news conference in Pahrump the day after his arrest and announced the appointment of his own special prosecutor, attorney Leslie Stovall.
Beckett called it Stovall’s job to investigate charges of political corruption and abuse of power by public officials in Nye County.
It appears that investigation will focus on DeMeo and his deputies.
A spokesman said Stovall is collecting documents and swearing in deputies to conduct the probe.
DeMeo counters that Beckett has no authority to appoint a special prosecutor, and the sheriff’s office is under no obligation to cooperate with Stovall and his associates.
“He’s a personal friend and a supporter of Mr. Beckett in his campaign,” DeMeo said of Stovall. “It’s like the fox appointing the dog to watch the chicken coop. It’s an inherent conflict.”
Davis called it “a travesty of justice,” and said it won’t work.
The allegations against Beckett stem from a bank account set up to collect restitution payments from people charged with writing bad checks.
In April, after Beckett was accused of skipping meetings with county Treasurer Gary Budahl and Dan McArthur, the county’s independent auditor, sheriff’s deputies obtained a warrant and seized a computer, checkbook and other records related to the account.
According to investigators, several hundred dollars worth of checks from the account were cashed with no documentation to indicate where the money went.
Another $6,000 went to the pep squad at Pahrump Valley High School for new uniforms and cheer competitions, authorities said.
Beckett’s daughters were cheerleaders at the school, and his wife coached the team.
The night of his arrest, Beckett denied the charges against him and blamed political enemies for the investigation.
Both the district attorney and sheriff are up for re-election. Beckett has drawn six challengers in his bid for a fifth four-year term. DeMeo has four challengers.
DeMeo dismissed suggestions that he should have postponed the investigation until after the election.
“Why should we wait?” he said. “Why should justice wait? I don’t care who the individual is. If they commit a crime in Nye County … we put them in handcuffs.”
DeMeo said he sees no conflict in his office investigating the county’s chief prosecutor and top legal adviser. He said that if he turned the case over to the Nevada state Division of Investigation or another outside agency, his department would be criticized for not being up to the job.
This isn’t the first time Beckett has had to campaign his way through distractions. During his 2008 run for judge, he crashed two vehicles in a six-hour span on Father’s Day on the same California desert highway.
He was booked for drunken driving after the second crash, but the charge was dropped when he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor reckless driving and agreed to complete a class on the dangers of alcohol and automobiles.
Now he’s back in the news, his name at the center of yet another story that has observers shaking their heads at the strange stuff that seems to happen in Nye County.
But to Davis, this is no laughing matter.
“It’s a sad day in Nye County history. It’s a sad day for the legal profession,” the judge said. “It’s just a sad day.”
Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal