LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Gov. Joe Lombardo was hit with a $20,000 fine Tuesday for violating campaign ethics laws and censured for using photos that showed him in his Clark County sheriff’s uniform.
Going into the hearing of the Nevada Commission on Ethics in Carson City, Lombardo was facing an unprecedented $1.665 million fine, a censure and the assignment of an ethics officer in the Governor’s Office. The punishment was reduced and the number of violations was revised to four — one for each of the photos in question, rather than 68 — the number of posts featuring the photos on Facebook and Twitter.
Two commissioners voted against the motion to punish Lombardo in a 4-2 voice vote. The commission must issue a written order following Tuesday’s vote.
The commission split the ruling, issuing summary judgments for both sides. Lombardo’s lawyers won summary judgment on the point that he had gained “unwarranted advantage” by wearing his uniform.
Lombardo, a Republican, defeated Democratic incumbent Gov. Steve Sisolak in the 2022 election. The photos were an improper use of his uniform and badge, conveying the power and prestige of the office in a manner that’s not allowed, commissioners ruled.
Lombardo did not attend Tuesday as his attorney presented the argument that he didn’t violate ethics laws. A complaint filed by Nevada Commission on Ethics Executive Director Ross Armstrong said Lombardo violated campaign ethics laws in 68 posts on Twitter and Facebook using photos showing him in uniform and wearing his badge.
Armstrong said after the ruling was issued, “I appreciate the commissioners taking the time to consider and make a determination in this matter.”
Lombardo attorney J. Colby Williams and Nevada Commission on Ethics Associate Counsel Elizabeth Bassett argued their cases for about three hours before commissioners followed up with their questions.
In Bassett’s view, the crime and the punishment were clear. She said the facts in the case were not in dispute, that Lombardo appeared in uniform in campaign photos — a willful violation of the election ethics, using government property to further his campaign.
“This was not a small violation. This was not a small use of government resources. This was a very significant, knowing violation of very fundamental public ethics law, which is you cannot use public resources to support your personal campaign,” Bassett said.
But Williams argued the case from top to bottom, asserting that there’s a big difference between a “willfull act” and a “willfull violation.” Lombardo’s campaign believes he did nothing wrong, and that the law is on his side. Williams said if Lombardo wasn’t allowed to continue to do his job as sheriff, then the Nevada Legislature should make the governor’s job a “resign to run” position.
And the fine? Williams objected to the commission counting 68 separate violations in what he described as a single course of conduct. He said Lombardo did not stop using the photos at the center of the dispute because it would be seen as a tacit admission.
He disputed the commission’s authority to levy any fine higher than $40,000 — the sum of a first violation ($5,000), a second violation ($10,000) and a third ($25,000). He said the law doesn’t say that there’s any fine beyond the third violation at all.
Bassett was bewildered at the argument, saying it undercut the Ethics Commission’s ability to deter violations. But Williams persisted.
“This argument that there is no deterrence if the fines can only be capped at a third violation, or at $40,000, I respectfully disagree. Again, I didn’t choose the language of the statute but we’re all stuck with it. It is what it is and it’s not ambiguous and so you have to stick with the plain language,” Williams said.
“But there is deterrence. As we talked about, the Legislature does recognize the potential for three or more violations and there is a consequence. It’s the strongest deterrence there is … you get removed from office. Period,” Williams said.
That possibility was not discussed at Tuesday’s commission meeting.
Moreover, Williams argued the Ethics Commission offered “zero proof” that the photos had anything to do with Lombardo’s victory in the election.
Commissioner John T. Moran III, appointed this month by Lombardo along with Commissioner Stan R. Olsen, dissected parts of the ethics law before deliberations began in a closed session. A test of whether Lombardo’s violation could be excused contains the phrase “appearance of impropriety” — which Moran pointed out has been challenged as vague and removed from other laws. Bassett said those laws applied the phrase in a different way — related to discrimination — than its use in the ethics law.
Moran and Olsen acknowledged their recent appointments by Lombardo as the meeting began, but both said they would participate and that they were just being transparent by mentioning it. Both said it would not affect their judgment of the case against the governor even though they knew him previously as “an acquaintance.” Olsen said he was Lombardo’s “co-worker” for a time in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
The appointments of Moran and Olsen came after the hearing was delayed on Lombardo’s objections that only three members of the five-member commission would judge his actions.
Hilary Barrett, Nevada State Democratic Party Executive Director, issued a statement on the ruling. “At today’s hearing, Joe Lombardo’s own legal team admitted he knowingly used his uniform and badge as a current law enforcement officer for the sole purpose of boosting his candidacy,” Barrett said. “From willfully flouting the law, to postponing an ethics hearing just to stack the commission with his own appointees, Lombardo has never acted as if the law applied to him. ‘Law and Order’ has never been more than a campaign slogan to him.”
Outside observers expected the commission to penalize Lombardo, but at less than the maximum penalty.
“The commission has long held that the things that go along with being sheriff — your badge, your uniform, those kinds of things — are the trappings of office that you can’t use to run for further office,” election attorney Bradley Schrager, a Democrat, said.
In a June interview, Schrager said, “I presume that like in the courtroom context, this will be resolved at a slightly lower level. But there’s no way to let him off. I mean, not only does he stipulate to the fact that he did these things, it’s very clear that he knew these things were unlawful. So it’s not as if you can get away with not having a penalty at all. That’s clearly not going to happen,” Schrager said.
Gov. Lombardo’s attorney released a statement late Tuesday night.
Although we’re gratified that the Commission did not impose the $1.6M+ fine sought by the Executive Director, we’re disappointed in certain aspects of the Commission’s ruling and are in the process of considering all options.Campbell & Williams Law Firm