By Matt Ward
A long-simmering personality conflict between the area’s two District Court judges became public Thursday when a memo from Judge Robert Lane was released that announced his official resignation from the Fifth Judicial District drug court program that he founded.
Lane was instrumental in starting the court as well as creating a nonprofit organization to fund its nascent operations. He also presided over the court for about seven years.
When Judge Kimberly Wanker took the bench last year — she was appointed by Gov. Brian Sandoval to replace the deceased Judge John Davis — Lane handed over drug court duties to the new judge because he felt he should take a break. He had also been doing much of the District Court’s work while Davis battled cancer.
Wanker dove right into her new duties, including at the drug court, which operates on a three-year, $1.1 million federal grant.
Sources at the courthouse tell the Pahrump Valley Times that Wanker discovered several questionable financial decisions regarding drug court funds. The discoveries, not all of which have become clear, supposedly led to added tension between the judges as well as the drug court’s coordinator Tammi Odegard.
An ever-increasing tempo of rumors over the last several months have made the rounds at the Pahrump courthouse — screaming matches between the judges, accusations of lying and theft, Lane even deciding to move out of his new offices back into his old office.
Sources say that Odegard faced disciplinary action recently when confronted by Wanker. Also, sources indicate that Lane’s resignation was more a mea culpa for appearing to disregard calls for an audit of the drug court’s bank account, an account that holds as much as $100,000 and appears to operate outside of county controls.
Also, raising some eyebrows is the fact that according to the Secretary of State’s Office, the nonprofit Fifth Judicial District Adult Drug Court 501(c)3 has as one of its director’s former District Attorney Bob Beckett, who lost his re-election bid in 2010 after 16 years in office after a string of embarrassing run-ins with police, including accusations of theft from his office’s bad check program.
Sources close to the drug court say Beckett has nothing to do with the organization and that the information provided by the Secretary of State’s Office is merely outdated. However, at least one county official, who did not wish to speak on the record, says they have information that suggests Beckett’s name was purposely left as director of the organization.
President of the organization is Lane, while Odegard is listed as secretary and treasurer. Sources say the nonprofit represents a unique departure from the way drug courts normally are organized in Nevada.
Asked Wednesday to explain why the nonprofit organization exists and what its functions are, Odegard said she couldn’t say. She did say that the nonprofit was started before she started work four years ago. Odegard got emotional when asked several follow-up questions, which she refused to answer.
Lane declined to comment outside his memo, which in part refers to a separate memo sent July 2 that alerted court staff that he still had the final say when it came to drug court, regardless of Wanker’s presiding over it.
Lane’s later memo suggests District Attorney Brian Kunzi played a role in changing that view.
“On Wednesday, August 1, 2012, I had a meeting with Mr. Kunzi who expressed concerns that he and others had regarding my memo that was promulgated on July 2, 2012. I told him that the purpose of the memo was to inform everyone that I was only taking a break from the drug court, that I planned to be back on board soon, that I didn’t want Tammy (sic) fired, that I didn’t want to start a new program too quickly that could interfere with the drug court program I had started, and that because I felt it was still my program I should be informed when anything out of the ordinary course of the program occurred.
“He informed me that some people had interpreted the memo differently and there was some frustration because of the memo — who was in charge, what could be done, and so forth. I apologize the memo wasn’t clear as to its intent,” Lane’s memo reads.
Asked for comment late Thursday, Wanker declined.
Kunzi issued a response to several questions without revealing what at its core is an internal dispute that has so far escaped public view.
The district attorney did say he doesn’t believe any drug court funds have been misused. His statements to the PVT seem to seek to diffuse the matter.
“The meeting to which Judge Lane makes reference was to address the structure of the drug court and whether there is a need for a continued use of the nonprofit corporation. Having a split structure was causing confusion within the ranks as to the controlling authority. Judge Lane wanted there to be clarity as to who the staff should report to and indicated he would clearly ‘resign’ from the operations to clear up any potential confusion.”
There is no indication that any investigation of the drug court program, its nonprofit arm or any other aspect of its funding is underway. One high-ranking sheriff’s official said he was aware of the issues but didn’t seem to think there was anything criminal to any of it.
A county official confirmed late Thursday that an audit of the drug court’s nonprofit would commence soon.
The drug court fight may be the tip of the iceberg as far as conflicts between Wanker and Lane. Sources indicate that the tension between the two stretches all the way back to when Wanker took her seat on the bench. Sparring over office decor and political wrangling over courts outside Nye County are two other memorable disagreements, sources say.