Failed test case

After 26 months, the Sherrie Doyle campaign finance investigation is finally coming to an end

Reno City Councilwoman Sherrie Doyle has served most of her four-year term with charges of campaign finance violations hanging over her head.

Reno City Councilwoman Sherrie Doyle has served most of her four-year term with charges of campaign finance violations hanging over her head.

On Feb. 3, 2000, the test began.

That was the day the Reno News & Review hit the streets with a cover story about possible campaign violations by Sherrie Doyle, a member of the Reno City Council. An investigation by the newspaper had uncovered some convincing evidence that Doyle had broken the law.

First, on a contribution report Doyle reported a $12,600 campaign loan from Reno activist Beth Miramon, although the cap on individual contributions and loans is $10,000 per election cycle. Second, writer D. Brian Burghart uncovered evidence that Miramon had given Doyle two series of loans, a group of campaign loans totaling $19,922 (meaning $7,322 was not reported at all—a serious no-no, if true) and personal loans totaling $19,361 (legally iffy, at best). Third, even though the debts were mostly unpaid, Doyle apparently failed to disclose them on an annual report to the Nevada Ethics Commission as legally required.

Following the story’s publication, several parties requested that the Nevada Secretary of State’s office investigate the matter. Since then, the case—which has statewide importance because it’s the first campaign finance violation case in Nevada history—has bounced around among several government agencies.

But finally, 26 months after this crucial test began, it may be reaching some sort of conclusion. Doyle has told the media that the case is now in the hands of a grand jury, and a decision on charges could come any day now.

After at least two parties—the Reno Police Department and Al Hesson, a former Reno government critic—requested an investigation because of the RN&R story, the Secretary of State’s Office referred the case to the Nevada Division of Investigation within days. In January 2001, 11 months later, the completed investigation was returned to the secretary of state. After another four months passed, in May 2001, the case was referred to the Office of the Attorney General for possible action.

(As a side note: In information provided this week by Susan Morandi, the deputy secretary of state for elections, she claimed the case was turned over from the NDI to the SOS “on about April 2, 2001.” However, this is incorrect, as she had previously confirmed that it was turned over in January 2001. She had explained that her office held the report for four months because there were more pressing issues that needed attention while the Legislature was in session.)

When the Attorney General’s Office got the case, Deputy Attorney General Kateri Cavin declined to give Burghart a timeframe for the case. However, she did not expect it to take months, she told him.

Well, it did—almost 10 of them.

At this point, the Attorney General’s Office has confirmed the existence of the grand jury (which reportedly has taken place in Washoe County, not in Carson City, the location of the first judicial court, as the statute seemingly mandates). State law prohibits investigators from discussing grand jury proceedings.

Although nobody is sure what the grand jury will determine, it’s widely believed that Doyle (and possibly Miramon as well) will be indicted on a variety of charges; there are rumors circulating that the various state investigations uncovered even more violations than were described in the RN&R story.

Meanwhile, Doyle has served the majority of her four-year term with the matter hanging over her head, and some have suggested the delay (and the timing of the case’s apparent conclusion—right as another campaign is heating up) may be politically motivated. The Office of the Attorney General has denied this, and there’s no reason to believe it.

But that does beg the question: Why has it taken 26 months?

“I am not so sure that is a long time,” Cavin says. “When you investigate a crime, it takes a long time to gather the evidence. … [Investigations] aren’t done in a vacuum. There are lots of other things going on, too.”

That’s true. It’s also true that this case pushed investigators into uncharted waters.

“Both the NDI investigators and the attorney general’s investigators had to be taught about election law, separate from their investigation skills,” she says.

Finally, Cavin admits that some people involved with the case may not have been convinced that it was important relative to other matters.

“I know how important this is to the press and the public,” she says. “But not everyone in the Attorney General’s Office recognizes that. They were also looking at—I am not going to say real crimes—other crimes. … We don’t have investigators sitting around twiddling their thumbs waiting for cases to come in.”

Cavin says she believes that the next campaign finance violation case that comes along will move faster because of the lessons that have been learned. She also thinks it’s important that these cases be treated with respect.

“Unless we investigate these crimes and tell the public what’s going on, they can’t make real informed decisions,” she says, pointing out that the Office of the Attorney General and the Secretary of State’s Office have been prioritizing campaign violation cases lately, fining and even suing candidates who turn in late campaign finance reports.

But how about the system as it stands now? After all, three different agencies had their hands in the Doyle case for months at a time.

Is the system, as set up in NRS 294A.410, working?

“Whether the process should be changed or not—that’s a question that should be answered by the Secretary of State’s Office,” she says.

One thing is clear: The Doyle case has taken way too long to get to this point. Few criminal cases—in which there is a suspect and obvious evidence—take 26 months to investigate. The delay hasn’t been fair to Doyle and Miramon. The delay hasn’t been fair to the public, either.

As the test concludes, the results seem to indicate that Nevada’s campaign finance investigation system has serious problems.

If campaign finance laws are going to be taken seriously in the future, the system needs serious improvement.