By Mark Waite
The importance of the Nevada Commission on Ethics decision in the case of Nye County Assessor Shirley Matson last week was more significant than the $5,000 fine may appear, according to parties that appeared at the two-day hearing in Las Vegas.
Matson was found guilty of two of the four ethics violations. Furthermore, the violations were considered willful.
The ethics commission by a split vote found Matson failed to commit to avoid conflicts with her private interests and used government property to benefit herself.
“Overall I’m pretty happy. The way I took it, it was basically two strikes, one more she’s out. I think honestly as a public official maybe this was a lesson for her and we all can move forward and hopefully other public officials know what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong,” said Stephanie Lopez, who filed the complaint that originated the hearing.
Lopez testified she filed the ethics complaint after Matson sent her a letter requesting a personal property declaration for a business she didn’t own, the day after an incident in the asssessor’s office parking lot involving a recall she was mounting.
Lopez agreed with ethics commission members who thought other county officials should’ve done more to solve the problem.
“I think our county should’ve united and not tolerated such negativity from her. A slap on the hand is basically what they could’ve done. After the ethics commission hearing I heard they could’ve done a whole lot more. Maybe we wouldn’t have gotten as far as we did,” Lopez said.
Matson was publicly reprimanded by Nye County Commissioners on March 25, 2011 for using county computers and the county seal to email disparaging remarks to Nye County Sheriff Tony DeMeo and others about the ethnic background of construction workers on the new county jail. The reprimand was excluded from the record being considered in the ethics hearing by Matson’s attorney, Brian Pezillo.
Nye County Manager Pam Webster wanted to look forward, not back.
“I put the hand out to help in any way I can to Shirley and she was open and appreciative. So I think that’s the way we have to look, moving forward instead of spending all our time looking backwards,” Webster said.
Nye County Commissioner Joni Eastley was the only commissioner to receive a subpoena for the ethics hearing. She was excused from testifying at the outset, but stayed for the entire proceeding.
“People should not underestimate the significance of this. I know that there was disappointment on both sides, but it is what it is. I follow fairly closely what the ethics commission does because I want to see what kinds of situations other elected officials are getting themselves into,” Eastley said.
But Eastley said she was disappointed at statements by the ethics board indicating Nye County officials could’ve done more to intercede in the situation at the assessor’s office. She said commissioners’ hands were tied.
“County commissioners, regardless of what county they serve in, are policy makers. They’re not administrators. Administratively we did everything we could when the issue first arose,” she said.
The county manager or a county commissioner could’ve told Matson to do something, but she didn’t have to listen to them as an elected official, Eastley said.
“What is there in the law that says an elected official has to do what the county manager tells him or her? Any elected official is accountable to the voters,” Eastley said. “We’re responsible for setting overall policy and putting together the budget, that’s it.”
Ironically, one of the ethics board members, Magdalena Groover, who wanted to absolve Matson of any ethics violations, was born in Mexico and had worked for a private investigations firm that handles corporate civil, extradition and immigration matters.
Board member Gregory Gale, who voted for only one of the ethics violations, the use of county material to make Matson’s signs, is a retired auditor for the Nevada Gaming Control Board.
Attorney Paul Lamboley, who was an arbitrator for the Transportation Trade Commission and a commissioner on the Interstate Trade Commission, was more critical. Board member Jim Shaw, a retired Washoe County school teacher and administrator who was a Sparks City Council and Washoe County Commissioner, also sat on the board. The fifth member to hear the case was John Carpenter, a former state assemblyman and Elko County Commissioner.
Donna Cox, president of Concerned Citizens for a Safe Community, who was issued a subpoena by Matson to testify but wasn’t required to, left a post on the Internet Monday attacking Lopez for blogging that she was happy Matson was fined, had attorney’s fees and can’t leave her house out of fear.
“Being happy that you all have made a woman live in fear of leaving her home and going to her job says a lot about Lopez and her groupies and not one bit positive either. That is why we’ve got Shirley’s back. Support for her is mounting and sympathy is setting in,” Cox wrote.
Matson said she wouldn’t comment after the hearing upon the advice of her attorney.