Called to account

Examining Reno City Councilwoman Sherrie Doyle’s indictment for theft

Those who are trying to figure out what to make of the 16 felony indictments brought against Reno City Councilwoman Sherrie Doyle on April 10 by the Washoe County Grand Jury have a lot of figuring to do.

Several things are clear: Doyle was not indicted for accepting more than $10,000 in campaign contributions and loans from an individual, which was the issue that prompted a state investigation that started more than two years ago. She was not indicted for failure to divulge some campaign contributions and loans on campaign disclosure forms. She was not indicted for failure to disclose loans and contributions to the Nevada Ethics Commission.

In fact, none of the alleged crimes refer to the Campaign Practices section of the Nevada Revised Statutes. The laws that Doyle is accused of breaking involve crimes against property. In short, Sherrie Doyle, scheduled to be arraigned Friday in Washoe District Court, stands accused of theft—using campaign contributions to pay rent and bills, make car payment and have her nails done. That’s embezzlement from the Committee to Elect Sherrie Doyle.

“She is probably guilty of a couple of campaign finance reporting transgressions,” says Eric Herzik, professor and director of the Graduate Studies Department of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno. “That’s not part of this indictment, which boggles my mind. When her claim was that she didn’t violate campaign accounting laws, her case was pretty weak. But to take this a step further and turn it from campaign finance to theft, I think that’s pushing the envelope, too. … It’s going to be an ugly case if they ever go to court.”

This new way of looking at how campaign money is spent—with big penalties for violations—could have a wide-reaching impact on all who hold elected office in Nevada. If convicted, Doyle could lose her seat on the City Council or even go to jail. Some have likened it to a local version of the Ken Starr investigation of Bill Clinton, when an investigation into a land deal evolved into the most expensive independent-counsel inquiry in history. Others have called it a political witch-hunt—when one charge against Doyle wouldn’t stick, another was found.

Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa wouldn’t comment directly on the Doyle investigation. She’s says that the reason this type of investigation takes so long is because, “You have to do any investigation properly, thoroughly and fairly. Anyone in law enforcement knows a lot depends on circumstances, but you don’t play politics with law enforcement.”

Still, the arguments presented by Deputy Attorney General David Thompson in the indictment seem straightforward: Doyle took contributions that were intended for her campaign expenses or for paying off her campaign debts and used them for other things, like garbage collection and car insurance. Doyle took checks made out to the Committee to Elect Sherrie Doyle and deposited them into her personal checking account.

The Attorney General’s Office has declined to speak about this case until the grand jury transcript is released, presumably this week.

The defense argument—at least at this point, since the defense counsel has yet to see the grand jury transcripts—also seems pretty straightforward: Doyle used the contributions for her campaign and to retire campaign debt. Doyle also declined to speak on the matter, referring questions to her lawyer, Tom Viloria.

“Show me the bright-line rule that says what a campaign expense is and what isn’t,” says Viloria. “That’s the problem. I think [prosecutors] have got some difficulty, because there is no bright-line rule as to what’s a legitimate campaign expense.”

Throw into that mix the fact that some of the victims named in the indictment don’t believe they were victimized and say that Doyle used their campaign money legitimately, as the Reno Gazette-Journal reported, and citizens of Reno can look forward to a political courtroom drama the likes of which the Truckee Meadows has rarely seen.

Beth Miramon, the Reno political activist who gave Doyle the contributions and loans that totaled more than the state’s limit of $10,000 and sparked the investigations, wasn’t surprised that she was not named a victim in the indictment. She says that Doyle has paid off her campaign loans.

“Part was a loan, not a donation; that part has been paid back,” she says. “The donation was a donation, and it was used by her for the thing for which it was donated. Out of the 13 [victims], I don’t think any of us feel that the money was stolen. We feel that it was donated for her campaign, and she used it for her campaign. For instance, they’re complaining about her rent—well, she worked out of her house; surely that’s a campaign expense. Nobody gives money to a campaign and says, ‘This is only for a billboard.’ “

Since the Committee to Elect Sherrie Doyle is “only a legal entity and not a natural person,” it remains up to the Attorney General’s Office (and a jury) to decide the bank account’s victim status.

With all of its intricacies, this may sound like John Grisham novel, but Reno City Councilman David Aiazzi says this is nothing compared to the rules that regulate campaign finance reporting. He says that if the disclosure rules were easier to understand, these sorts of public spectacles might be avoided.

“Every six months we should file a form, and it should be a very simple form,” he says, suggesting a single form could work for local, state and Ethics Commission reports. “[It would include] who’d you get money from, from this date to this date, and what did you spend it on. Then you put it into different categories, advertising and so forth and so on—like a tax form, but it wouldn’t have to be even that complex.”

Reno City Councilwoman Toni Harsh agrees that the campaign filings are difficult. She solved the problem by hiring a bookkeeper to do her campaign accounting. Still, she acknowledges that honest mistakes can be made. For example, she recently missed the March 31 state financial disclosure deadline by a week, filing on April 8.

“I simply blew it,” she says. “I completely forgot.”

Both Aiazzi and Harsh are concerned about the length of time this case took to be investigated. Of course, they would be troubled: Because of the way the theft laws are being interpreted and prosecuted, every elected official has to wonder if contributions they thought of as legitimate may suddenly be looked at in a new light.

This case has the potential to polarize the community. All the players involved have deep and intertwined roots in the area. For example, and by way of disclosure, Beth Miramon is my friend who once paid me for some computer consulting work. Sherrie Doyle, after our initial story about the campaign contribution issues, worked with me on several stories, including stories about Friendship Lane, police vehicle leases and police dispatch. Judge Jim Hardesty, who will hear the case, once assisted me, at no charge, on a legal issue. David Thompson and I are friends who occasionally meet socially.

This case may turn out to be about larger issues than whether the councilwoman used money for babysitting while campaigning or to have her fingernails done for campaign commercials. It will likely strike at the heart of the risks people take to carry the mantle of “public servant” and call into question why anyone would want the job in the first place.

"There are bigger implications here than Sherrie Doyle," warns political scientist Herzik. "This case absolutely suggests to me that campaign finance laws need further reform. I recently heard this joke from a candidate, ‘What’s the first thing you do when you declare you’re a candidate? Well, you hire an accountant.' "