The Nevada Ethics Commission last week voted to clear Washoe County District Attorney Richard Gammick on a complaint that he used public resources to campaign for reelection, but only after eliciting expressions of contrition from him.
At issue were two events during last year’s campaign, an Aug. 30 meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition and a Sept. 17 tailgate party Gammick threw at the University of Nevada, Reno.
At the Republican meeting, Gammick used a county-owned laptop and PowerPoint presentation and handed out officially imprinted pens paid for by county funds.
For the tailgate party, he used a county vehicle assigned to him to transport campaign materials to the event at UNR.
The complaint against Gammick was filed by Chris Wedge, the campaign manager for Roger Whomes, who lost the election to Gammick.
Video footage of the Republican meeting and photographs of the tailgate party served as evidence, along with testimony by witnesses, including Wedge.
Commission chair John T. Moran III said the purpose of the hearing was to determine “whether his conduct as a public officer fell below the statutory guideline.” Moran also said the “accepted norm” might be an issue.
The two events were treated differently. In the case of the August Republican meeting, the commission needed to determine whether the meeting was a campaign event or just an informational event. The September tailgate event was plainly campaign-related.
Gammick’s attorney Rew Goodenow argued that a Washoe County ordinance specifically allows for different rules on vehicle use by two officials—the sheriff and the district attorney. The reasoning is that those two officials need to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Acting Reno Police Chief Steve Pitts was called as a witness. He was a volunteer in Gammick’s campaign and attended the August Republican meeting. Gammick’s attorney wanted his testimony on how Gammick is on call at all hours, and Pitts provided that. He also testified under questioning that in his own agency, police officers who have vehicles they take home do not use those vehicles for non-official purposes.
Chief Pitts said, “This is the first campaign I’ve ever worked on.” He added ruefully, “I don’t think I’ll ever do one again.”
During Wedge’s testimony, Moran talked about the difficulty of achieving a “level playing field” between challengers and incumbents. Wedge said, “You can’t level it. That’s why, I think, that there are ethics laws” to limit the incumbency advantage and distinguish between office duties and campaign activities.
“When you are at a campaign event, there needs to be a bright line between them,” Wedge said.
Wedge’s case was hampered by the imbalance in ethics commission proceedings. While Gammick had an attorney to represent him and present the defense case, no one presented the case against him, an arrangement that drew comments from audience members. Wedge was treated simply as a witness. At one point when there was a lull in the hearing as Gammick conferred with his attorney, a woman stepped up to confer with Wedge and a committee staffer reprimanded Wedge for speaking to her: “Don’t do it again.” Immediately afterward, a break was called for Gammick to confer at length with his attorney, but attendees at the meeting were warned not to talk to witnesses—which included Wedge.
Goodenow deftly kept the focus on matters that diverted the attention of commissioners from the issues against his client.
For instance, he drew attention to Gammick’s demeanor and presentation at the Republican meeting, suggesting that whether the meeting was a campaign event should be determined by Gammick’s own presentation, not by the intent of the meeting sponsors. Goodenow implied that it could not have been a campaign event because Gammick talked almost entirely about the functioning of the district attorney’s office, supported by the PowerPoint presentation on the same subject. (Gammick asked for audience votes and offered campaign signs, but they were only a few sentences out of a 90-minute presentation.)
There was a flaw in this reasoning—many incumbents avoid the issues of a campaign and talk about policy and their jobs in order to take advantage of their incumbency. It’s a sort of local “Rose Garden strategy,” and represents the incumbent candidate’s tactical view of campaign events. But the commissioners largely accepted the way Goodenow framed the matter.
As a result, the ethics commissioners gave little attention to the origin of the Republican meeting, which was initially planned as a debate between Gammick and Whomes. When the candidates could not agree on a moderator, Gammick agreed to appear alone.
In another instance, Goodenow was able to get Wedge to undercut his own case against Gammick by agreeing with some language Goodenow used: “Your view is that it [the county vehicle] was used as a prop.” Wedge replied, “Correct.”
The problem is that the vehicle has no exterior markings, has no official license plates, and emergency lights are virtually invisible. It looks pretty much like any other Chevrolet Trailblazer, so it makes a poor campaign display prop. But the commissioners spent a good deal of time, encouraged by Goodenow, on whether the vehicle could be used as a prop. They even inspected the vehicle itself—Gammick had driven it to the hearing—in the parking lot. Lost in all the attention given to the “prop” issue was the question of what the county vehicle was doing being used to transport campaign materials to the campaign tailgate party in the first place.
During the hearing, commission chair Moran cautioned Goodenow not to focus on the issue of Chris Wedge’s role in the campaign of Gammick’s opponents. Gammick’s actions, not Wedge’s motive, he said, were the issue. “We’re not really interested in the motives of the person who filed this complaint. … That’s not relevant,” Moran said. Goodenow ignored the admonition. Several times—including immediately after Moran’s comment—he drew attention to Wedge’s motives.
But after his attorney put the case well in hand for Gammick, the district attorney himself nearly upended his own case. Most of the commissioners seemed to believe Gammick’s actions were a mistake but not serious enough for an adverse judgment. Still, they wanted assurance from Gammick. But when he testified, there was nothing contrite about him. He irritated the commissioners with a combative attitude. He reworded a question addressed to him in terms more favorable to himself. During a discussion of the tailgate party, a commissioner said, “But it was a county vehicle. You used it for a campaign event.” Gammick shot back, “I didn’t use it for a campaign event.” He seemed to have a tin ear for the ethical considerations the commissioners raised, telling them at one point that what he learned from the ethics proceeding was, “I won’t go to any more of those [tailgate] parties.”
Temperatures in the room were rising, and the mood was changing. Moran had begun his questioning of Gammick by saying he did not believe the district attorney’s actions reached the level required for discipline. Now he told Gammick that his conduct “rises to the level” of an ethics violation.
At that point Gammick backed off. He said that he heard the commission “loud and clear—I have heard the message sent to me today.” When he was asked, “Do you think it was bad judgment?” he replied, “Yes sir.”
As the testimony portion of the meeting ended, Gammick said, “I have heard you, Mr. Chair.”
In the end, his shift in tone satisfied the commissioners. They voted unanimously to throw out the portion of the complaint dealing with the Republican meeting. Only one commissioner voted against Gammick on the tailgate party.
A member of the audience was upset that the public comment portion of the meeting came after the commission had already made a decision. But the commission is a quasi-judicial body, and its rulings are supposed to be made solely on the evidence, not public sentiment.