Those pesky ethics

kangaroo court n. 1. A mock court set up in violation of established legal procedure. 2. A court characterized by dishonesty or incompetence.

You could start your discussion of the ethics hearing regarding yet another complaint about the business dealings of Reno Mayor Jeff Griffin with a toy kangaroo perched on one civic activist’s hat, if you wanted to.

But who wants to start there? We’ve heard endless charges from frustrated critics for years. Griffin is, of course, at his wits’ end. In the most trusting scenario, you could say that the mayor sacrificed his hard-won businesses—the Foreign Trade Zone and Griffin Transport—merely to silence the critics who say that undisclosed past business dealings with the Reno airport have been unethical. Actually, that’s what the mayor did say.

“I made the ultimate disclosure by selling the business I built,” he said, evidently exasperated. “[That was] partly a response to the accusations I have suffered for six years.”

The Nevada Ethics Commission did dismiss the most recent charge against Griffin made by Guy Felton, who complained that Griffin may still have been receiving money from the sale of these businesses during the time he sat on the boards that appointed two new airport trustees.

The commissioners who heard the case last week decided that Griffin’s financial records supported Griffin’s claim that he had no financial interest in the companies during the time he voted on the appointments.

Ethics commissioner Raymond “Skip” Avansino proved a firm mayoral supporter. He said that Griffin’s business records demonstrated a “clean transfer” of the property. Before the proceedings, Avansino, a local attorney, made a disclosure that he had contributed to Griffin’s 1998 mayoral campaign. He said that he believed he could still render a fair decision during the proceedings.

But some have questioned whether Avansino is in fact qualified to make any kind of ethical judgments.

“Reno attorney Raymond ‘Skip’ Avansino has gone from the middle of an ethical nightmare to become a member of the Nevada Ethics Commission,” writes columnist John L. Smith of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Avansino’s story is intriguing, to say the least.

Avansino, once the president and CEO of Hilton Hotels Corp., resigned the position in 1995 and was ousted from the Hilton board of directors in 1996. These actions came after an ethical question arose over his award on behalf of the Hilton of a $250,000 grant to a company affiliated with then- Kansas City Port Authority Chairman Elbert Anderson. As Port Authority chairman, Anderson was an influential voice in the selection of the Hilton to operate a riverboat casino on city-owned property.

In 1997, Anderson was convicted of unrelated bribery charges. In 1998, Anderson admitted to requesting the Hilton money in return for his casino bid support. Hilton paid a half-million in fines and dumped three execs, including Avansino.

At the last mention of Elbert Anderson in The Business Journal of Kansas City in 2000, the former official was productively doing federal prison time in Leavenworth, where he was teaching classes.

Avansino, on the other hand, apparently faced no legal consequences other than the loss of his job. He’s now helping the community out by serving on the Nevada Ethics Commission.