By Steve Sanson
More ethics complaints and violations involving leading public officials in North Las Vegas continue to mount — City Attorney Sandra Douglas Morgan, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, City Manager Qiong Liu and Assistant City Manager Ryann Juden are now involved.
In 1991, then Mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, formed an independent commission headed by Warren Christopher (who later became U.S. Secretary of State) to investigate rampant allegations of corruption, excessive force and other systemic problems in the Los Angeles Police Department. This “Christopher Commission,” is widely credited with effectuating sweeping changes to the LAPD which made it more accountable, transparent, responsive and law-abiding, reinstalling the confidence of the public in its police force.
It may be time to convene a similar commission to investigate rampant allegations of corruption, ethical violations and bullying of employees in North Las Vegas.
Veterans In Politics has filed three ethics complaints against Sandra Douglas Morgan — one with the Nevada Commission on Ethics, one with the State Bar of Nevada, and one with the Nevada Secretary of State.
As the Las Vegas Review-Journal recently reported, two prior ethical complaints were filed against Sandra Douglas Morgan in March 2015.
It is well known that Sandra Douglas Morgan, who became North Las Vegas’s City Attorney in 2013, has widely supported the recall of North Las Vegas Municipal Judge Catherine Ramsey. As the Review-Journal previously reported, Sandra Douglas Morgan tried to get the state’s Commission on Judicial Discipline to take action against
Judge Ramsey, but when her efforts failed, she fervently undertook a recall campaign against Ramsey, the first of its kind in the history of Nevada.
Shortly afterwards, Sandra Douglas Morgan declared her candidacy for the very judicial position that would become available should her recall efforts succeed!
As described on its website, the City Attorney “is the chief legal officer of the City and represents and advises… City officials and departments in legal matters pertaining to their respective office and City operations.” The City Attorney therefore represents municipal court judges in the performance of their duties. She swore to defend,
and has a duty of loyalty to, those judges, including Judge Ramsey.
Apparently, it did not dawn on Sandra Douglas Morgan that participating in the recall effort and declaring her candidacy for the very position she was charged to defend, put her in direct conflict with the interests of her client.
Moreover, as the City Attorney, she is charged with and advises the City Clerk’s office regarding the requirements and processes of running the recall, including the number and validity of signatures
and votes required for such recall. She cannot, without proper written waivers, ethically advise the City on this process while simultaneously seeking to personally benefit by its outcome.
NRS 281A.400, the Code of Ethical Standards for public officers and employees, expressly prohibits the seeking of any “employment, engagement, emolument or economic opportunity which would tend improperly to influence a reasonable person in the public officer’s or employee’s position to depart from the faithful and impartial discharge of the public officer’s or employee’s public duties.”
It is painfully obvious, though apparently not to Sandra Douglas Morgan, that spearheading and supervising recall efforts while simultaneously running for the very position that would be vacated by those efforts, would at a minimum “tend” to improperly influence her ability to faithfully and impartially discharge her duties.
Understandably, as previously reported in the Review-Journal, Craig Mueller, Ramsey’s attorney, reacted to the news of Sandra Douglas Morgan’s candidacy for Ramsey’s position by stating: “Every day I think my opinion of North Las Vegas can’t get lower… It’s the most basic conflict of interest.”
Sandra Douglas Morgan should have done what other public officials would hopefully do in similar situations — “resign to run.” She should have resigned her position as City Attorney before spearheading Judge Ramsey’s recall efforts so she could usurp the position for herself.
Sandra Douglas Morgan’s ethical violations, however, don’t seem to stop with conflicts of interest.
Having announced her run for Judge Ramsey’s seat in July 2015, Sandra Douglas Morgan officially became a “Judicial Candidate” as defined by the Revised Nevada Code of Judicial Conduct. This is so even though
she has not yet registered her candidacy with the Nevada election office, and would not be able to do so until 2016, assuming her recall efforts are allowed to proceed. (Ramsey’s challenge to the recall efforts is presently pending before the Nevada Supreme Court.) The Code of Judicial Conduct states that “a person becomes a candidate for judicial office as soon as he or she makes a public announcement of candidacy… or, where permitted, engages in solicitation or acceptance of contributions or support…”
Sandra Douglas Morgan has already publicly declared her candidacy, including on the Veterans In Politics radio show, posted numerous billboards, signs and other advertisements announcing her candidacy, held fundraisers, and has even posted a candidacy website at www.sandramorgan.net where she proudly encourages people to “Elect Sandra Morgan, Municipal court Judge, North Las Vegas.”
Therefore as a judicial candidate, Sandra Douglas Morgan is obligated under Rule 4.2 of the Code to “comply with all applicable election, election campaign, and election campaign fund-raising laws and regulations of this jurisdiction.”
Shockingly, or perhaps not, Sandra Douglas Morgan is already running afoul of campaign fund-raising laws. She has begun to solicit and accept campaign contributions, including via her website’s prominently displayed “donate” button, in direct violation of Rule 4.2 of the Code of Judicial Conduct.
Rule 4.2 (D) states that “candidates running exclusively for municipal court… may solicit or accept contributions for the candidate’s campaign no earlier than 120 days before the primary election and no later than 90 days after the last election in which the candidate participates during the election year.” Moreover, if the candidate
turns out to be unopposed as of the last day permitted to file her candidacy with the election office, “the candidate must not solicit or accept [any] campaign contributions” This prohibition is repeated in the Comments to the Code: “In the event the candidate is not opposed in an electionÖ the candidate may not solicit contributions. One of the reasons for this restriction is that unopposed candidates for all judicial offices only need one vote to win their election.”
The comments to Rule 4.5 warn that “a candidate and members of the candidate’s campaign committees must exercise a high degree of ethical behavior in the soliciting and acceptance of campaign contributions…”
At this point, it is unclear whether there will even be a special election in North Las Vegas to fill Judge Ramsey’s position, let alone whether Sandra Douglas Morgan will be opposed or unopposed in her bid to replace Ramsey. The North Las Vegas City Clerk, Barbara Andolina, recently confirmed that “at this time there is no election pending” and that “no Declaration of Candidacy was filed and cannot be filed until we are ordered by the Nevada Supreme Court to call for a Special Election.” Consequently, there appears to be no basis for Sandra Douglas Morgan’s premature solicitation and collection of campaign funds.
Moreover, if someone else does decide to oppose Sandra Douglas Morgan in her bid for Judge Ramsey’s position, that candidate will be at a distinct disadvantage given the significant head start that Sandra Douglas Morgan enjoyed in fund-raising by disregarding the very laws she swore to uphold.
Sandra Douglas Morgan should be required to immediately disclose her campaign contributions and expenses. Rule 4.2(A) (5) of the Judicial Code requires all judicial candidates to “report contributions received and campaign expenses spent, in accordance with NRS Chapter 294A,” which in turn requires that contribution reports be filed “within 30 days after the special election.” Given that Sandra Douglas Morgan’s apparent improper contributions [already exist], she should now be required to immediately disclose all such contributions and expenses. Doing so will also shed light on allegations that she has accepted campaign contributions from Mike Yarter, President of the North Las Vegas Police Officers Association, in excess of the legal campaign contribution limits.
Sandra Douglas Morgan’s disregard of the law also appears to spill [over] into violations of Nevada’s “open meeting” laws. This seems particularly the case with regard to issues pertaining to Judge Ramsey and the City’s attempts to remove Ramsey from office. As the City Attorney, the chief lawyer advising the City Council, Sandra Douglas Morgan had an obligation to stop all discussions that violated Open Meeting requirements. Yet, perhaps blinded by her conflicts of interest with Ramsey, she not only failed to stop these discussions, she actively participated in them.
NRS 241.020 requires, with few exceptions, that “all meetings of public bodies must be open and public, and all persons must be permitted to attend any meeting of those public bodies.” The statute provides that absent an emergency, the public body must give at least three days prior written notice of the meeting, and such notice must include an itemized agenda of topics to be discussed and the items on which actions may be taken.
In addition, NRS 241.033 requires that any meeting convened to consider the character, misconduct, competence or health of a person must be done pursuant to at least five days prior notice given to that
person, along with a list of the topics to be discussed, and giving that person the opportunity to attend.
The Nevada legislature made clear in NRS 241.010 that the purpose of open meeting laws is to ensure that public bodies are transparent and open to the public: “In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that all public bodies exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.”
Yet, City Council discussions were held in violation of these laws. In an August 6, 2014 City Council meeting, Mayor John Lee, on his own initiative and not as part of public comment or in response to public comment, raised the issue of then-recent employee complaints against Judge Ramsey. This issue was put for discussion by the Council without notice and without being on the agenda. The discussions also centered on the character, alleged misconduct, competence or health of Ramsey.
Yet, no advance notice was given to Ramsey to be able to rebut these discussions at the meeting. This violated Open Meeting laws. Similarly on October 1, 2014, the City Council discussed the number of Ramsey’s days off. Mayor Lee calculated that Ramsey took 78 days off in a year, unnecessarily costing the City $94,000. Yet, since this was not a topic on the published agenda, Ramsey and her supporters were not at the meeting and did not have the opportunity to respond to these allegations. Ramsey claims that had she had the opportunity to attend the meeting, she would have corrected the record to indicate that Mayor Lee’s numbers were calculated over a 16-month period, included numerous weekends, holidays and half days and even included days off taken by another judge. She also maintains that during the days off she did take, she was primarily attending mandatory
conferences, training and community events. According to Ramsey,.. she took only 19 days off in 2011-2012; 22 days off in 2012-2013; and 29-1/2 days off in 2013-2014.
It should be noted that there is no limit on the number of days off that judges can take, but for comparison, Ramsey indicates that she earned over 37 days off in a year when she was a City Attorney. The damage that violations of the Open Meeting laws can create is apparent — according to Ramsey, the North Las Vegas City Council now replays its meetings containing Mayor Lee’s then-uncontroverted numbers on Channel 8, and these allegedly inaccurate numbers are now being used to support Ramsey’s recall petition.
While this article concentrates on Sandra Douglas Morgan, previous Review-Journal articles, Veterans In Politics articles, and ethicalviolation complaints detail alleged transgressions by other top leaders of North Las Vegas, including its top police officers. Indeed, the allegations of misconduct, which start at the highest level of the
City’s government, have spread so widely that it may no longer be possible to simply “clean house” by removing just a few people with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel. Rather, it now appears that the entire system needs to be independently reviewed to determine the true depth and extent of the apparent corruption.
The March 2015 complaint filed by two former long-time Human Resources employees, Bachera Washington and Tammy Bonner, reads like an excerpt from “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.” As reported in the October 20, 2015 Review-Journal article, the complaint describes the Mayor’s tenure since he took office in 2013 as a “reign of terror” where favoritism is rampant and employees are threatened and humiliated until they either fall in line or are fired. Washington and Bonner should know — according to their complaints, which are reportedly supported by credible evidence, they were fired for speaking out against Lee and Assistant City Manager Ryann Juden. City Manager Qiong Liu, Sandra Douglass Morgan and Juden are also named in the complaints. The
Review-Journal recently reported on Mayor Lee’s investigation for child pornography. The Review-Journal and Veterans In Politics have for years reported on the abuse of power, excessive force, and illegal prisoner beatings by Dave Noahr, North Las Vegas’s new Assist Chief of Police, and have also reported on abuse of power by other North Las Vegas police brass, for example former Police Chief Joseph Chronister and Deputy Police Chief Tony Scott, both of whom were subsequently released from their positions. But the problems, which seem to
permeate the top leadership positions, persist.
It’s time for the citizens of Nevada to insist that something be done to clean up these problems. Convening an independent commission to investigate would be a good start.
So we repeat the question we asked in our prior article: “Is there anyone in a leadership position in Nevada who has sufficient love of State and the moral fortitude to finally end this apparent reign of corruption?” We will not stop reporting on this until someone, perhaps all of us, finally step up.
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Steve Sanson is President of Veterans In Politics International and can be reached at www.veteransinpolitics.org.