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Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson resigns after admitting to misappropriating campaign funds for personal use

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson resigned from his legislative seat on Tuesday in a tear-filled speech on the Senate floor, announcing he would be pleading guilty to federal charges of misappropriation of campaign funds for personal use and taking “full responsibility” for his actions.

The sudden, emotional resignation marks a precipitous fall for Atkinson, the state’s third African-American and first openly gay Senate majority leader. A legislative mainstay, the Las Vegas Democrat was first elected to the Assembly in 2002 and joined the Senate after the 2012 election.

“I hope to have the opportunity to prove someday that this is not who I am, just something I did wrong,” he said in a speech on the Senate floor, adding that “I have no one to blame but myself” for the matter. “I just pray that someday I will have the opportunity to contribute to my community once again in a meaningful way.”

Atkinson acknowledged in his speech that he had used campaign funds for his personal use and said that he would be “pleading guilty for those actions when that time comes.” He declined to comment further on the case before and after the floor session, saying the disposition of the case was not final and he would be referring all questions to his attorney, Richard Wright.

Court documents related to the charges had not been posted online as of late Tuesday morning. Wright said in an email that Atkinson will plead guilty to a federal misuse of campaign funds charge in Las Vegas, which is both a state and federal crime and carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years.

“I am embarrassed, I am ashamed and I am truly, truly sorry,” Atkinson said in the speech. “I pray for your forgiveness.”

State Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro, who previously served as Atkinson’s deputy, was elected to succeed him as majority leader in a unanimous vote of the Senate Democratic Caucus Tuesday afternoon. In a statement, she said she was “deeply troubled” by the allegations against Atkinson and the circumstances of his resignation but that it was “in no way reflective” of the caucus’s values and standards.

“The trust between the people and their government is a sacred bond and must remain strong,” Cannizzaro said. “Our Caucus will turn the page and move forward. Voters elected us to go to work and fight for them. We fully intend to spend the next 91 days doing just that.”

Members of Atkinson’s own party, from Gov. Steve Sisolak to his longtime friend Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, harshly condemned Atkinson’s actions in statements Tuesday morning. Sisolak said that Atkinson had “betrayed the trust of the public” and should be held to account.

“I am extremely disappointed in the news that Kelvin Atkinson misappropriated campaign funds for his personal use,” Sisolak said. “This admitted violation of the law goes against the integrity every elected officer in the state of Nevada should uphold.”

Sisolak added that he was looking forward to working with Cannizzaro and other legislative leaders “to ensure our state government operates with the high standards of transparency and integrity that Nevadans deserve.”

Frierson, in a statement, said he was unfamiliar with the details of Atkinson’s case but that he was “disappointed” by his actions. However, he said that Atkinson “appears to be taking full responsibility, as he should.”

“Our job is to focus on passing meaningful legislation that helps all Nevadans,” Frierson said. “We cannot be distracted from doing the work that voters elected us to do.”

Cheryl Bruce, the executive director of the Nevada Senate Democratic Caucus, said in a statement that caucus members were “saddened and disappointed to learn of the circumstances” of Atkinson’s resignation.

“The charges levied against him are serious, and allege conduct that we strongly condemn. His resignation is appropriate,” Bruce said. “We trust the courts to do justice in this matter. Given what little information we currently have, we won’t be commenting on what appear to be ongoing investigations.”

Bruce added that the caucus will “continue to focus on fighting for hardworking Nevadans” under Cannizzaro’s leadership.

Attorney General Aaron Ford said in a tweet that he is “deeply shocked and saddened” by the revelations.

“He accepted responsibility and justice will take its course,” Ford wrote in a tweet. “My family is praying for him and his family during this difficult time.”

Atkinson, who was elected to the top legislative post in 2019 after serving as former Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford’s deputy in the 2017 session, had vowed collegiality and to work to improve the lives of homeless youth on his first day as leader last month.

“I ask that we consider our roles, not as politicians or legislators, but as parents, role models and community leaders,” he said in an opening speech on the first day of the session. “Consider the progress we can make as a state if we, the most diverse legislature ever, can behave with dignity, respect and tolerance.”

Born in Chicago in 1969, Atkinson attended Howard University and lost his father to gun violence while in college. He came out as gay in a speech on the Senate floor in 2013, and became part of the first same-sex couple to marry in Nevada when it became legal in 2014.

Atkinson previously worked as a management analyst for Clark County. In recent years, he opened a downtown Las Vegas bar called the Urban Lounge.

It’s the first departure of a Nevada lawmaker in the midst of a session since former Assemblyman Steven Brooks was expelled from the Legislature in 2013 amid ongoing mental health issues. Another former Assemblyman, Morse Arberry, was charged in 2011 with depositing more than $120,000 in campaign funds into his personal bank account but took a plea deal with a six-month suspended sentence.

The resignation leaves Democrats with a 12-8 advantage in the state Senate, though Atkinson’s seat may quickly be filled by an appointed senator. The overwhelmingly Democratic North Las Vegas district will be on the ballot in 2020.

The Clark County Commission will appoint Atkinson’s replacement, who must be a Democrat and reside within Senate District 4, which includes the Historic Westside of Las Vegas. Assembly members Will McCurdy and Dina Neal serve in the two Assembly districts inside Atkinson’s Senate district.

Asked whether they would seek an appointment to the seat, Neal said she wasn’t thinking about that right now, and McCurdy declined to comment. Both lawmakers met with Frierson shortly before Atkinson’s resignation Tuesday morning.

News of Atkinson’s legal trouble comes a little more than a year after Las Vegas City Councilman Ricki Barlow resigned his seat and pleaded guilty to misuse of campaign funds for personal use.

Republican Senate Leader James Settelmeyer, a longtime friend of Atkinson, said he was told the federal investigation stemmed from the federal inquiry into Barlow, though he was unaware of specific details of the case. He stressed that the charges should not be seen as indicative of the behavior of other legislators.

“We have to worry about the institution,” he told The Nevada Independent. “This is the exception, not the rule.”

Settelmeyer had stronger words in a later statement and suggested that the problems with Atkinson could extend further.

“Senator Atkinson has violated the integrity of our elections and broken the trust of the voters and his colleagues,” Settelmeyer said. “We hope this is an exception, but we must get all of the facts and determine how far this corruption goes.”

Assembly Minority Leader Jim Wheeler called Atkinson’s actions “troubling.”

“Criminal behavior has no place in our legislature,” Wheeler said. “I applaud the work of our law enforcement and look forward to hearing the final details of this investigation.”

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Visiting author inspires students during Reading Week

ELKO — Author and musician Bill Harley presented an inspiring message about reading and writing to elementary school students during his weeklong visit through Elko County schools last week.

Harley’s performance was part of Reading Week and was brought to several elementary schools by the Elko County Reading Council, sponsored by Kinross-Bald Mountain Mine and the Elko County School District.

Students were captivated at Southside Elementary by Harley’s performance of songs, storytelling and speaking about how he became a writer. The gymnasium was riddled with laughter and giggles while students interacted with Harley during his performance, responding to his music and stories.

“The reason I came here is because I write books and I want you to read. There’s a particular reason I’m here today and that’s because I’ve read,” Harley said. He went on to tell students that some of them are readers and some are not. He told them he knows why some of them don’t read. “I know the secret, the secret is you haven’t found the right book yet. There is a book, you’re looking for the book. You want the book. The reason you’re not reading is because you have not found ‘the’ book,” said Harley. He encouraged them to go to the library and keep searching for “the” book.

Harley encouraged them not only to read, but to write, sharing his own story. He told them to keep trying, to ignore the negative voice in their head. He spoke about the writing process and how he tries to write every day he’s not touring.

As a child, Harley’s mother wrote for a student publication called Weekly Reader.

“I knew writing was something you could do,” said Harley.

Harley, a multifaceted performer, is based out of Massachusetts and travels the country as a children’s entertainer, storyteller, musician and author. He has received two Grammys for Best Children’s Spoken Word Album and has published several books including the Charlie Bumpers series and “Night of the Spadefoot Toads.”

Bringing a visiting author each year during reading week is the biggest event the reading council does.

“I just think we do good things,” said Cheryl Turner, president of the council. “Watching the engagement of those kids the last few days was amazing. Living where we live, a lot of kids don’t experience this stuff.”

“We got a really good response at Southside. He’s the best visiting author that we’ve ever had,” said Curtis Ferlisi, vice president of the Elko County Reading Council. “I really wish I had this opportunity when I was in school. I think it does plant that seed for kids that I could be a musician, I could be an author, that’s a really important message.”

Each year the Elko County Reading Council purchases books and CDs by the visiting author for each school he visits, giving students the opportunity to become familiar with the author prior to his visit. “That really helps the students get to know the author before and they do an author study in the class room. They get star-struck,” said Ferlisi.

Organizers are grateful for the support and funding they receive.

“Securing funding through the Elko County School District and Kinross Mines is a huge help. We couldn’t do it without their assistance,” said Ferlisi.

Harley ended his performance at Southside Elementary with more encouraging words for students.

“Once you find ‘the’ book, then you’re going to find another book that’s even better. What I most want for you is that you find that one. Once you do that, it’s like this door’s going to open.”

Commissioners to discuss presidential voting, emergency declaration

ELKO — Should Nevada’s electoral votes go to the winner of the nationwide popular vote in the presidential election? Should Nevada’s attorney general have joined the lawsuit against President Trump’s emergency declaration?

Elko County commissioners will discuss their opinions on a couple of state and national issues at this week’s commission meeting at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Assembly Bill 186, which includes an agreement among states to elect the president by national popular vote, was introduced in the Nevada Legislature on Feb. 18.

Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson, D-North Las Vegas, a sponsor of the bill, said, “The only position that we don’t do popular vote is one of the most important ones, and that’s our President of the United States.”

If AB 186 is approved, Nevada’s six electoral votes would go to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote, rather than to the candidate who receives the most votes statewide.

Similar legislation has passed in 11 other states, and is also being considered by additional states.

The bills that pass may be challenged in courts, since the Electoral College system is in the 12th Amendment.

Some of the Elko County commissioners said this week that they think switching to the national popular vote for presidential elections would be a very bad idea for Nevada.

“I think it is an absolutely horrible idea in direct opposition to the interests of Nevada and its citizens,” Commissioner Rex Steninger wrote in an email. “Our Founding Fathers set up the Electoral College specifically to protect the interests of low-population states like Nevada. Without the Electoral College, Nevada and its residents would have absolutely no say in presidential elections.”

He said Clark County has turned Nevada into a blue state, and he hopes the state returns to its conservative roots.

Commissioner Cliff Eklund said the Founding Fathers came up with the Electoral College formula to give all states an equal vote, “and they were very wise people.”

Talking about the legislators supporting AB 186, Commissioner Demar Dahl said, “I wish those people would have paid better attention in seventh grade civics when they were in school.”

Also on the agenda for the March 6 county commission meeting, the commissioners will discuss President Donald Trump’s emergency declaration to provide funding for the border wall. On Feb. 18, Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford joined a lawsuit filed by California and other states challenging the declaration.

At the Elko County commissioners’ Feb. 20 meeting, Commissioner Cliff Eklund said that Richard Howe, chairman of the White Pine County commission, had talked to him about whether Elko County commissioners would make a statement expressing their disagreement with the Nevada attorney general’s decision. The Elko County commissioners agreed this should be added to the agenda of their March 6 meeting.

Commissioner Steninger said last week that he is “100 percent behind” the Elko commissioners writing a letter expressing their displeasure with Nevada joining the emergency declaration lawsuit. He said “illegal immigration is a problem” that is “absolutely” worthy of an emergency declaration.

Equal Access to Justice Act

The commissioners also tackled another national issue at their Feb. 20 meeting when they voted to approve a resolution stating why they believe there should be reforms made to the Equal Access to Justice Act. The EAJA is a 1980 federal law that allows individuals, small businesses and public interest groups to obtain representation in cases against the federal government and to receive attorney fees if they are successful in their case.

Commissioner Jon Karr said that for a long time he has had concerns about the way the EAJA is being used, and that is why he asked Elko County Natural Resources Director Curtis Moore to do some research and to put together a resolution outlining ways the law could be reformed.

Karr said the motive behind creating the EAJA was to help prevent the government from bullying powerless people, but now the law is often being abused by attorney firms.

“They’re not actually environmental firms, they’re not scientists trying to fix the environment, they are attorney firms that are getting funded by these Equal Access to Justice funds,” Karr said. “We can’t do science-based land management if you have attorneys suing just to sue.”

The resolution approved by the commissioners at their Feb. 20 meeting says that the Natural Resources Defense Council was awarded $425,688 in attorneys’ fees in fiscal year 2018 and received $9,247,509 in attorneys’ fees in fiscal year 2017.

Karr said commissioners are sending the resolution to their senators and congressmen asking them to take a closer look at the EAJA. He said this should be a bipartisan effort.

“If you guys who are Democrats are truly environmentalists, then let us be environmentalists and do what’s right for the land, and not have attorneys just suing so we can’t do anything,” Karr said.

The resolution passed by the commissioners asks that “attorney’s fees and litigation costs awarded under these statutes should be based solely on the financial need of the plaintiff, and such award should be unavailable to any group, nonprofit or corporate, with over $100,000 in assets.”