I-Team: Water Authority Spends Millions on Lobbying, Attorneys - 8 News NOW

Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp and Photojournalist Matt Adams

I-Team: Water Authority Spends Millions on Lobbying, Attorneys

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LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- Public records laws were used to trace how much money is being spent by the Southern Nevada Water Authority and where it's going. The investigation has taken a long time to get an overall picture of just how much money the SNWA is spending on contracts and consultants and outside opinions, much of it to support the so-called water grab.

Recently, some elected officials have also taken an interest in the fire-spending ways of the SNWA. The main question being, when government at all levels is cutting back, how can the water agency continue to spend?

"This is my life. This is me. This is all I ever wanted to do," said White Pine County rancher Hank Vogler. "To have somebody come along and trivialize everything that is important to me in my life, man, that's hard to choke down."

See a breakdown of how much money was spent on attorneys

Rancher Hank Vogler may not look the part of a high priced water consultant, but he nearly became one. Vogler owns one of the few properties in Spring Valley that hasn't been gobbled up by the Southern Nevada Water Authority. He says he's tried to be a good neighbor to the employees at the SNWA ranches, but it's been trouble ever since they arrived.

"The jackbooted thugs that lock your cattle off of water -- that try to destroy you as a person and tell you they are going to destroy you and put you out of business," he said.

He says his rivals brag of powerful connections. "I called him up and asked, ‘What the heck is going on?' and he said ‘I'm hooked up so high in that outfit. Don't you mess with me, I'm gonna put you out of business.' He's so high up in SNWA, SNWA is going to put me out of business," he said.

The outspoken Vogler says SNWA eventually responded to his complaints by offering a consulting contract worth thousands of dollars, with one hitch -- no more public statements unless approved by them in advance. Vogler saw it as an attempt to muzzle him and turned it down.

Fellow rancher and water critic Dean Baker, a private pilot, says a water official once offered him an airplane if he would soften his opposition to the groundwater plan. He too said no. "It's clear, the reason they bought all those ranches in Spring Valley was because agriculture was their biggest obstacle to get over and it was way cheaper to buy the ranches than preserve the water in the springs there," he said.

SNWA spent nearly $80 million to buy up ranches in the Spring Valley at prices three to five times the going rate. It spends up to $80,000 a month to run them, pays a Reno lawyer named Joe Guild $120,000 a year to be the lobbyist for 1,700 head of cattle, hired eight other lobbyists for the Nevada Legislature, spends millions of dollars each year shaping public opinion with fat contracts for a half dozen large P.R. firms in Las Vegas, even though it maintains a staff of 14 full time in house public affairs employees.

A new public records request uncovered a lengthy list of law firms on retainer to SNWA. The outsiders were paid more than $3.5 million last year, but the agency also has an in-house staff of seven highly paid lawyers.

"That is a big scandal. The attorneys, the lobbyists, this army of public relations people that they have in both the private sector, the contract hires, as well as the people working for them, and it's all about this water grab," said Launce Rake with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

Rake thinks SNWA's spending is obscene. It's no coincidence the agency has tied up so many of Nevada's water lawyers, he says. When his employer wanted to sue SNWA, it had to hire a lawyer in New Mexico.

Attorney Al Marquis is one of the few water lawyers to dodge what he says is a calculated strategy. "This is a well known tactic in legal services -- when they go to a law firm and consult on a particular matter, that law firm cannot now be on the other side of the case," he said.

"What happens with the water authority is it has just been operating as its own empire, its own fiefdom for so long, that Mrs. Mulroy and her staff really resent any honest look at their activities," said Rake.

That opinion appears to be gaining some traction. Newly elected County Commissioner Steve Sisolak says he's astonished by the unchecked spending he's uncovered at SNWA in the past month. And he's not alone. "It is an out of control agency," said Nevada Assemblyman Joe Hogan.

Hogan, a three term Assemblyman, knows first hand how hard it is to put a rein on SNWA. The elected officials assigned to oversee SNWA rarely challenge tough-minded water boss Pat Mulroy, and it seems to him like Mulroy, the employee, sets the policy and elected leaders follow along. Especially regarding the proposed water grab.

Financially, he says, the agency calls its own shots. "I have never seen an agency that is so independent of its supposed supervision as the Water Authority," he said.

"It was overwhelming. We couldn't hire enough people to get the job done," said Mulroy.

Mulroy acknowledges the many outside consulting contracts she's approved, but says it's the only way to handle the huge workload her agency faces on many fronts. As for the P.R. and lobbying deals, "Every single one of those contracts has gotten a haircut. And some of the contracts have been re-tooled to an hourly wage. Some of the contracts are being phased out."

Mulroy scoffs at the idea that she employes every water lawyer in the state, saying she gets sued al lteh time. The legal expertise is critical for her agenda. "For us, it's a balance. We have excellent in house counsel but they can't do it all," she said. "We're imploding economically and we dont know where the bottom is so we are kicking the tires on everything."

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