MY COLUMN: Laxalt distorts Miller's gifts, but there are real issues there

Ross Miller has handed Adam Laxalt a gift.

Laxalt and his GOP allies are intent on focusing the attorney general’s race on Miller’s acceptance of thousands of dollars of tickets, trips and trinkets, hoping to tarnish the reputation of the two-term secretary of state. But neither the Republican hopeful nor his friends have accurately portrayed what these gifts actually are, underestimating the total while overestimating the contents. There are, however, serious questions about whether Miller should have taken any of them, especially because some gifts violate the precepts in the secretary of state’s own campaign reform bill.

Miller’s disclosure of many more gifts from state supplicants than any other constitutional officer raises questions about his judgment and makes him susceptible to charges of hypocrisy. Do Miller’s gifts stand out because he went “above and beyond” to report, as he likes to say, or because he took more than most? The answer to both questions may be yes.

But there are larger issues raised by this, too, including what is not being reported by others and what the real difference is between campaign contributions and these offerings.  Campaign contributions from major donors are often larger and seek more direct access and influence.

Laxalt is trying to create an integrity issue here, insinuating that Miller is in thrall to special interests and lobbyists representing them who gave him these gifts. For his part, the secretary of state believes he is being penalized for his transparency, although I have always argued he should not have taken these gifts, especially if he wanted to crusade against them.

How Miller’s gifts should be weighed against the candidates’ qualifications to be attorney general will be more a function of the effectiveness of the ad campaigns by both sides. Before the airwaves are flooded (the GOP attorneys general have a buy beginning Tuesday) and wash away any truth, here is my gift of facts to consider:

►Laxalt consistently says Miller has received $70,000 in gifts as secretary of state. That’s wrong. Since 2008, when he first started accepting gifts, Miller has reported a little more than $80,000 worth. (See spreadsheet attached here.) But that number also is misleading.

Three-quarters of that amount is for yearly memberships in a prestigious CEO group, a fellowship much sought after by elected officials, a Pew conference and a secretaries of state trip to Taiwan. (Miller obtained a letter from the CEO group, which is called Vistage and has some members who might one day interact with him in state government, to rebut the charges of Laxalt & Co. It is attached here.)

“These aren’t gifts in the traditional sense,” Miller argued during a Nevada Press Association debate a week ago.

That leaves only about $20,000 in the kind of gifts Laxalt implies affect Miller’s judgment – or could.

Of the gifts from special interests that total a little more than $20,000 (see second spreadsheet attached here), there are dozens of charity banquets, UNR athletic events and conventions. They are paid for by prominent special interests (mining, Station Casinos-linked UFC, lobbyists, utilities) who, even if they don’t have obvious business with the secretary of state’s office, are not purchasing the tickets for Miller because they think he is a raconteur extraordinaire. They want access and influence – if not now, down the road – with an elected official always seen as a political climber who might one day be governor.

Miller believes he is being unfairly singled out because he went “above and beyond” what the state’s reporting requirements say, so his list is longer than any other constitutional officer or any lawmaker. He suggests others simply do not report certain gifts because the definition has been so murky, claiming they do not fit the statutory outlines.

This is almost certainly true. Lawmakers have been caught trying to use an “educational trip” loophole to justify not reporting trips such as ones to the United Kingdom or Israel. And some have failed to report some of the same events Miller has, either because of the presumed value or the vague statutory definition of gifts.

Miller also points out that last session he tried to define and ban some gifts, which is true. He deserves credit for going up against an entire Legislature that loves accepting these acts of generosity by people who often want acts of generosity in return.

But I think this argument is hardly exculpatory and somewhat self-incriminating. First, there is the issue of hypocrisy – how does Miller take all of these while making an issue of them? And second, some of the tickets he accepted would have been prohibited under a bill he proposed, one (SB49 link) that essentially would have banned gifts from lobbyists.

“A couple of the things (he took) would have been prohibited (by the bill he put forward),” Miller acknowledged in an interview last week. “If I had to do it over again, I don’t think I would have taken any of this stuff.”

Ah, hindsight made even sharper by a political attack.

Can Miller seriously argue that none of those who gave him those gifts will ever need a favor from him as a public official? Even if he has the integrity to stiff-arm them, in the best Jesse Unruh spirit, why create the appearance of access-buying?

The secretary of state can argue that many of these gifts were from longtime friends, especially the UFC tickets – the secretary of state is a well-known mixed martial arts aficionado. But taking $8,000 in free tickets since 2008 from a company owned by one of the biggest political players in the state – Station Casinos’ Fertitta brothers – is asking for trouble.

Miller also took tickets for events from prominent lobbyists Pete Ernaut, Greg Ferraro and Alfredo Alonso as well as from a mining trade group, Barrick Mining and others. The secretary of state also accepted a number of tickets over the years from AT&T totaling a little more than $3,000, most of which he was not required to report because they were under the $200 threshold.

Miller has insisted “many of these people were my friends first,” which surely is true. But the definition of friendship is a little different in the political world, and a crusading secretary of state probably should have been less friendly when offered the gifts.

Miller is correct that there is a fine line between accepting a charity event ticket and a campaign contribution. Do you gain more influence with a gift or a donation?

I suppose the answer is: It depends. On the amount. On the frequency of the gifts or contributions.

There’s no question that politicians are invited to charity events because of their titles not their personalities. Miller simply reports more than most – many lawmakers find loopholes, or get their legal advisers to find them, to not reports trips or gifts. But they are all designed to curry favor, and Miller’s transparency argument does not vitiate the purpose of the gift-giver.

Some might find a compelling argument to be that while pols should attend charity functions, they should pay for the tickets themselves or with their campaign funds, thus at least creating a better appearance. And some appearances matter.

Paying with campaign funds also makes any influence more diffuse -- it's just a pot of money from many donors -- and less direct than a ticket paid for by a special interest or lobbyist.

As for Laxalt, besides underestimating the total, he also uses inflammatory rhetoric to describe Miller’s gifts, saying during that press association debate that Miller “has a reckless pattern” of accepting them and falsely asserting that the incumbent attorney general, Catherine Cortez Masto, has reported less than a thousand dollars in gifts. Last year alone, she reported almost $14,000 in gifts, almost all for conferences.

Laxalt also has proposed banning attorneys general from accepting gifts. But when press association debate moderator Steve Sebelius wondered about extending it to other constitutional offices and lawmakers, Laxalt, bizarrely, balked.

Still, the GOP candidate has seized on the gift issue, as has the GOP attorneys general, which has pounded Miller in ads and, I’m sure, more to come. The Republican State Leadership Committee erected a website last year as a foreshadowing of what the campaign was all about.

“I’ll absolutely never be beholden to special interests,” Laxalt declared at the press association debate, apparently making the point that taking $20,000 in gifts over six years is more corrupting than twice or three times that from one hotel casino corporation in a single cycle.

But Miller handed the issue to Laxalt and the Republicans by being the white knight during the day and the gift-taking partier by night. And in a race where neither candidate is that well known, that’s why this issue could resonate.

(Images from Nevada News Bureau and Politico.)