Power and responsibility

Nevada Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto are two of Nevada’s constitutional officers, officials elected statewide to run state government.

Their clash over her prosecution of him has come to an end, but there are lessons from this dispute that should not go unlearned.

Cortez Masto took accusations of mismanagement against Krolicki into the criminal law arena, a case of the criminalization of politics as abusive as anything done to the Clintons by Kenneth Starr.

Even if everything Krolicki was accused of was true, it still amounted to criminally prosecuting the lieutenant governor for being a poor administrator when he was state treasurer. And it is far from certain that those things are true.

Krolicki was accused in a legislative audit of mishandling funds associated with a college savings program. But there were widespread rumors that the Nevada Division of Investigations had cleared the lieutenant governor of criminal wrongdoing. No funds ever went missing.

All this preceded Cortez Masto’s arrival as attorney general. After she took office, a matter that had been regarded as dormant came back to life, and Krolicki and his aide Kathryn Besser found themselves under indictment. Last week, a judge threw the case out of court on the grounds that the indictment was so vague that it amounted to inadequate notice of the charges against the defendants.

Cortez Masto’s deputy on the case, Conrad Hafen, all but confirmed that what Krolicki did was an administrative error—“It [state money] wasn’t run through the appropriate accounting system,” Hafen said at one point.

This was a gross violation of civil liberties, the use of state power and the criminal justice system to damage people for purposes unrelated to the public good.

Inherited case or not, overzealous deputies or not, the decision to prosecute was the attorney general’s. She is the responsible official, and the state bar should consider an inquiry into whether she abused her prosecutorial discretion. A prosecutor, unlike a defense attorney, has a responsibility to do justice.

The attorney general and some journalists say that while her prosecution did not succeed, that does not clear Krolicki. Setting aside the fact that is not the way the U.S. system of justice works, that claim too is false. “It was not dismissed based on any finding the state lacked sufficient evidence to prove its case at trial,” Cortez Masto said. That doesn’t wash. With the public’s resources at her disposal and after months of work, if that shoddy indictment could not even pass muster, it amounts to proof of the insufficiency of the case itself.

Most demoralizing of all is that Democrats, including three other constitutional officers who serve with Masto and Krolicki, did not speak up against the attorney general’s abuse of power. Democrats consider themselves more sensitive to breaches of civil liberties than Republicans, yet there was little indication of it here. They ignored the actions of their fellow Democrat Cortez Masto when it paid dividends against a Republican lieutenant governor.

It is difficult enough for the public to have faith in their public servants these days. For the past 33 months, two such servants—one elected, the other employed—and their families have been put through an unnecessary ordeal while the public’s money and trust were wasted.