The Candidates’ Debate Night on Tuesday had some testy exchanges between candidates for Nye County clerk, assessor and district attorney.
In the debate for county clerk, incumbent Sam Merlino and former chief deputy clerk Sheila Winn discussed plans for updating office technology and the work environment. However, the heart of the discussion focused on missing funds that has led to a third-party court case, and Winn’s departure from that office.
When asked about funds stolen from the county clerk’s office and then replaced by Winn, Merlino said immediately after the incident she had two staff members examine every check and petty cash account at night and again every morning.
Winn stated she never took anything and there was no money missing from the office.
“I did in fact take care of much of the money,” Winn said. “I never took anything contrary to what people believe and there was no missing money from the coffers. There was no missing money when this came to surface and that’s all I can tell you.”
Merlino said it was Winn’s actions that covered up missing funds for another employee.
“The reason there were no funds missing Sheila is because you replaced it and you didn’t notify me that it was stolen,” Merlino replied.
Winn left her job in February after replacing money herself that was taken out of the clerk’s office by a fellow clerk now before the court accused of embezzlement. Winn conceded she made a mistake.
“I do apologize for not letting the county go without that money and for putting it back in the coffers I guess I made a mistake there,” she said.
More than 200 people packed the ballroom at the Pahrump Nugget Hotel and Casino for the debate, which was moderated by Bill Carns, chairman of Nye County Republicans.
Merlino said she has been working on updating the technology with a very limited $84,000 annual budget.
Merlino, who began work as a deputy clerk in January 1994 and was appointed county clerk in 1999, said she allows observers to view elections.
Winn said everything isn’t mandated by the Nevada Secretary of State’s office, she’d like to allow a board consisting of different political parties to watch the county clerk’s office count results on election night.
The county clerk’s office should implement the new Just Ware program, Winn suggested, a program that tracks cases electronically in the justice court system. Merlino said the office has been doing test conversions, but the court’s data was hardly recognizable.
“The justice courts are having to do all their statistical reporting by hand because that system is not working correctly,” Merlino said. “I refuse to compromise the integrity for our records until that system is up and running correctly.”
When asked why she resigned as chief deputy clerk in February, Winn asked why that was pertinent to her qualifications, stating she was chief deputy clerk for seven years.
“That was my personal choice and I don’t care to share that part with you,” Winn said. “I absolutely can do the job. I did it for 10 years. I’m just saying I don’t think my decision was pertinent.”
County Assessor Shirley Matson said she decided to run for re-election because “it was pretty obvious they weren’t qualified.”
Matson said she has 38 years experience in the real estate industry as an underwriter for an escrow company, and holds a California and Nevada real estate license.
She boasted of the aerial survey program instituted during her term which helped appraise property.
Her opponent, Sheree Stringer, said she is a personal property appraiser.
“There isn’t anything that states that you have to be a certified appraiser with the Department of Taxation, I believe hands-on training is your best bet. I’ve been with the office 10 years, I started at the ground level and worked my way up,” Stringer said.
“The difference that Ms. Matson talks about is that she is a real estate appraiser or broker. It’s totally different from the Department of Taxation appraisal system,” Stringer said. She promised to improve the morale in the assessor’s office.
Matson charged there were inequities in the assessments throughout the county.
“There are favors given to people,” Matson said. “That’s something that needs to stop right away.”
Stringer replied, “where is that documentation because we’ve never seen it.”
“That’s probably not something I’m going to share with you,” Matson said.
“You need to justify it to the employees it pertains to and none of us have seen that,” Stringer said.
Matson said she would improve public perception of her office by having employees who are team players, realizing she is the boss.
“They need to grow up. They need to realize we need to take care of citizens, this isn’t just a place for them to pick up a paycheck. They have to be cooperative with their elected officials,” Matson said.
Matson attempted to fire Stringer earlier in the campaign, but Stringer is on paid administrative leave.
Stringer replied, “We have been brow beat and I believe that what needs to happen the assessor’s office needs to stay out of the newspaper for one. It’s been a total embarrassment to the county, to the citizens of Nye County, to the citizens that work there and all I can say is under my administration that will not happen.”
The FBI raided the county assessor’s office seizing equipment after there were allegations Matson tampered with the county mail. The assessor’s office was formerly the repository for the county mail system.
Fifth District Judge
Fifth District Judge Robert Lane probably summed up his accomplishments most succinctly and briefly in 90 seconds.
“I started the drug court about 12 years ago and the juvenile drug court 11 years ago. We have the second busiest jurisdiction in the state of Nevada in number of cases per judge, 2,700 cases and most of the years I handled Pahrump while judge Davis did the north so I was doing about 60 to 70 percent of the caseload,,” Lane said.
“I’m pretty fast, we get most of the orders out within a couple of days. I come to work early each day, work through lunch, I’ve never been sick, I’ve never been late, I’ve never missed court, I have an excellent record I’ve rarely been reversed, haven’t had to redo any trials civil or criminal, no mistrials which saves the county time and money, I follow the law, I’m fair, I’ve ruled for and against rich people, DA’s, commissioners, town boards, ranchers and I’m fair to everybody in court,” Lane said.
Lane added he received two judicial excellence awards and is a veteran, spending six years on Navy submarines.
When asked how to improve the office, Lane said at the American Judicial Association Conference in Las Vegas this week, there was talk about ways to reduce the fifth district court caseload to the more typical 1,300 cases per judge per year.
“Justice Hardesty from the Supreme Court was talking to me about possibly getting a third judge for the jurisdiction or alternately cutting Hawthorne off, we cover a four and a half-hour drive from here to Hawthorne. You got the Hawthorne, Tonopah, Goldfield and Pahrump courts. They’re thinking about maybe giving Hawthorne over to Fallon and let the judge there handle it. Then increasing the technology so that we can meet with people and lawyers who are calling in from Las Vegas and Reno who don’t have to make the long drive and spend a lot of money on their attorneys by Skyping with us or doing some technology.”
His opponent, attorney Lillian Donohue, said she has lived in Pahrump for 11 years and has practiced law 38 years. She agreed with Lane on needing another judicial position.
“I’m a big believer in our constitutional republic that we are governed by the rule of law and that no one is above the law and that the law must be applied equally to everyone and the rule book for judges is the U.S. Constitution,” Donohue said in her opening remarks. “I’m not going to be a legislator from the bench, I will not be making the law, I will enforce the law and applying the law.”
“I believe that judges are the guardian of the law and there’s a principle no one is above the law,” Donohue said. In referring to Lane, she said, “I am also a big believer in term limits. I don’t think we as citizens should give golden parachutes to the judges. We should have limits like we do with president, governor, everybody should have two terms. When we get to a point where people have so many terms under the belt we end up giving them fabulous retirements.”
Lane said he was a deputy district attorney for seven years before his 14 years as judge and is fully vested in the state retirement system. “There is no golden parachute if I work one more day more or 20 years more, I don’t get a dime more in retirement than I would get today.”
After some lively exchanges between District Attorney Brian Kunzi and candidate Angela Bello in the final debate of the night, the barbs led the moderator to comment, “let’s keep the punches above the belt.”
Bello said she ran for office after looking at the district attorney’s web-site, which she said is essentially blank, because it had nothing about victims’ rights. She obtained a bachelors degree at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas while raising a child and got her law degree from the University of San Diego School of Law. She was a judicial law clerk for the 8th District Court in Clark County, was outside trial counsel for MGM Resorts, and chief litigator for Coleman Law Associates.
In a dig at Bello, Kunzi, who formerly worked for the attorney generals’ office said, “I haven’t lived here for one month, I lived here for 16 years. I raised my family here, my wife has been a special education teacher for over 15 years.”
When asked about restricting federal agents in Nye County, Kunzi said, “I believe the Constitution defines the powers given to the federal government. That’s how the federal government gets their powers and only those powers.”
When asked about plea bargaining, Kunzi said, “as far as case resolution we’re trying to figure out the best way we can get a result. A lot of people talk about plea bargaining, we put a lot of people in prison for life with a plea bargain. But it’s important to know what you’re getting out of the deal. We talk to victims, we advise them what’s in the deal. We try to advise them in the process.”
If the DA’s office took every case to trial, he said it would take 20 years to hear them all with the number of judges available.
Bello suggested Kunzi talk to one victim, who was never informed of victim’s rights after his child was allegedly abused.
“I would disagree with that assessment completely. Since you were not living here I’m not sure you even understand what the case was about,” Kunzi replied.
Bello was asked about her primary experience in civil, not criminal law.
“I don’t believe the district attorney you’re hiring is a criminal law attorney, a district attorney very rarely goes to trial,” Bello said. “I think Mr. Kunzi can attest to that. He is very rarely in court and he should not be.”
Kunzi said he’s been in the courtroom over 31 years as a civil litigator and criminal prosecutor.
“I have done over 40 jury trials,” he said. “As far as I know, my opponent has not done any jury trials. No I do not have the luxury of going into the courtroom as much as I have done in my career. I can mentor, I can teach, I can train. There’s not a trial that goes on in my office, that we’re not there late at night, discussing trial strategies, trying to figure out how to deal with certain issues coming up, writing briefs, that’s something my opponent does not have experience doing.”
Bello said Kunzi’s experience has not been paying off as much as it should. She said the DA’s office’s 50 to 60 percent conviction rate on serious felonies is dismal, using figures she said came from people in the judiciary and the public defender’s office.
“When you start throwing out figures like 50 percent on serious felonies you have to know the basis,” Kunzi said. “Those are phony figures that are trying to be thrown out there.”
Bello said she’s concerned about the skyrocketing juvenile crime rate from 2012 to 2013, she wants to use the Internet to help children avoid being abused. Bello added she’ll go to the senior center to tell seniors how to avoid economic crimes.
“One of the things I’m most proud of as a district attorney is putting together a child advocacy center,” Kunzi said, citing a joint venture with No To Abuse and others. He said under the program child victims are interviewed just once and don’t have to go through a lot of the trauma of court cases.
“I don’t let my deputies dismiss domestic violence cases,” he added. “Domestic violence is a scourge that we have to stamp out.”