Slam-dunks with Ma Bell & Mary Ellen McMullen

This is the opening volley of the University Scandals 96-97 series, selected installments of which were submitted for Pulitzer Prize consideration. Click here to access the archive.

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor get poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows.
-- Leonard Cohen

The University of Nevada system is corrupt, and everybody knows it. Things are so bad that people with legitimate criticisms fall into two silent camps. One fears retaliation and is afraid to speak up. The other loves the institution so much they feel that revealing the truth would cut the flow of badly needed contributions.

Would you donate to UNR if you knew your money was going to pay for a car for the use of President Joe Crowley's wife? Would you support an outfit seriously considering skimming off one percent of scholarship and endowment funds to turn over to the already profligate fund raising bureaucracy? (Dead people can't protest, so who cares what their bequests mandate?)

Would you donate to a system that can't reconcile its bank accounts to the tune of, perhaps, $7.6 million? Hell, what's a few million between friends? (This Tuesday at 11:00 a.m., the regents' audit committee will get a report on the subject. The official meeting notice only says "a discussion will be held on bank procedures and reconciliations." The session will be held at the corner of Evans and Enterprise at UNR. The building is near the baseball field.)

When the university board of regents was discussing buying off former UNLV basketball coach Rollie Massimino's illegal contract, interim Pres. Kenny Guinn (early favorite to be our next governor) showed a friendliness for abusing scholarship funds the same way now being discussed. According to official Board of Regents meeting minutes of October 19, 1994, Guinn "related there would in essence be no tax dollars or student money used for this, but only using receipts from advertising, sale of programs, etc., or ticket sales and scholarship monies from donors."

The university system settled with Massimino for $1.8 million (remember that figure). Which brings me to Barrick Goldstrike Mining, which brings me to bigtime lobbyist Sam McMullen, which brings me to Mrs. McMullen, a candidate for the board of regents in Reno.

Lawyer Sam McMullen, who spent a long time in the Harrah's hierarchy, is one of the heaviest hitters at the Nevada Legislature. His clients include tobacco giant Philip Morris, Sierra Pacific Power, the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority and the gambling-industrial complex. His most recent claim to fame was engineering the ill-fated Labor Day weekend compromise trying to get the Incline Village richfolk to agree to back off their opposition to the Washoe County school bond.

One of Mr. McMullen's lobbying clients is Barrick Goldstrike Mines, which recently won praise from the Reno Gazette-Journal for paying (I am not making this up) $1.8 million in taxes upfront so that Elko County could begin construction on a new school.

The foreign mining company will extract a whopping $10 billion in gold from Nevada and pay close to nothing for the privilege. (The 1872 mining law allows them to buy our land for pocket change, five dollars an acre or less. The U.S. is a laughing stock around the world for charging no royalties on mineral extractions.)

Barrick Goldstrike, Mr. McMullen's client, has donated $750 to Mary Ellen McMullen's campaign for university regent. So what?

Barrick hires the likes of Mr. McMullen to broker influence, that's what. They are worth billions and litter the landscape with dollars. Mining firms frequently utilize universities for research, eventually controlling whole departments. Whenever the Nevada Legislature starts talking about a severance tax or gross proceeds royalty in exchange for raping the land, they will cash in all their contributions so carefully and cheaply laid.

The perception of power is power. Which brings me to Mrs. McMullen's campaign treasurer, lawyer Harvey Whittemore. Moreso than even Sam McMullen, Harvey represents a who's who of big time special interests. Harvey is ARCO's boy, those wonderful people so good at keeping gasoline prices artificially high and upon whom I've been reporting all year. Harvey also works for slot machine maker IGT, contributor of $2,500 to Mrs. McMullen's campaign, and for another tobacco giant, RJ Reynolds. Like Sam McMullen, Harvey is one of the main men at the Ledge imposing the will of the gambling-industrial complex.

Harvey was the point man for Hilton in winning passage of the Tailhook Bill last year. A future Lt. Paula Coughlin who inadvertantly walks into danger at a Nevada hotel-casino would find suing very difficult if not impossible here in the land of orgies-are-us.

Harvey was also a prime mover behind the Blackball Bill, which would have legalized the blacklisting of casino workers. Assemblyman Bernie Anderson (D-Sparks) did his best to help stop it, the only major casino-pushed legislation which Lord Darth Vader and the Dark Side failed to get passed in the last session.

Down at the biennial petting zoo we lovingly call our legislature, if you are perceived to have power over a public official, you do. Sooner or later, that perception means someone will come to you with a deal, this for that, my guy's vote for your guy's support later.

Simply because of her husband and campaign treasurer, Mary Ellen McMullen stands pre-brokered before ever taking office. Could she resist pressure? She doesn't have to. She need have "no knowledge" of whatever's going down. In Washington, they call it plausible deniability.

But she will be used because of how the game is played. Were she running for a lesser office, it might not look so bad. But she is an admitted insider in what is already a proven corrupt university system.

The heart of that corruption lies with the multifarious university foundations. Legally, they are part public, part private. In reality, they have become money laundries and cookie jars, all to the detriment of the students.

Everbody knows the boat is leaking Everybody knows the captain lied Everybody got this broken feeling Like their father or their dog just died Everybody talking to their pockets Everybody wants a box of chocolates And a long stem rose Everybody knows.

The UNLV Foundation was used to park the illegal, hidden contract involving Coach Massimino. When UNR engineering Prof. Carl Looney questioned the UNR Foundation's spending, including the car for Mrs. Crowley, Sam McMullen's law firm represented the foundation before the state ethics commission in 1992. Ethics commission chairman Spike Wilson found spending for Mrs. Crowley's car illegal, along with a lot of other profligate payments to UNR officers or employees. Mr. McMullen's firm is still the foundation's law firm today. Mary Ellen McMullen currently sits on the foundation's board, and has used that position to help make the case for her candidacy.

The university regents are technically foundation "shareholders" but have no real power. The regents can't even make a decision to raise tuition anymore, having conceded that power to the university bureaucracy.

The UNLV foundation is basically controlled by Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn, whose Mirage Resort is a McMullen campaign donor. As president of the heartland of the jockocracy, the UNR Wolf Club, Mr. Whittemore sat on the UNR Foundation board until June 30, 1996. The McMullen Strategic Group, Mr. McMullen's lobbying and media firm, contributed $10,000 to Mrs. McMullen's campaign. Attorney Whittemore is also a main player in the upscale Wingfield Springs housing and golf course development north of Sparks proper.

The corrupt cookie jars sitting on nefarious foundation shelves were apparently the reason longtime University and Community College System of Nevada Treasurer Janet MacDonald resigned last June. Ms. MacDonald, a CPA and former member of the Nevada Public Service Commission, protested the "unsound financial policies" of Chancellor Richard Jarvis.

"I don't want to be associated with them," she told the Associated Press at the time. "MacDonald said her concerns focused on university investment practices, foundation funds and endowments. Regarding investment practices, she said the university is like a family that starts spending more than it takes in by using such things as credit cards and other instruments, then winds up in financial difficulty," the AP reported. MacDonald also expressed worry about student fee hikes and salary increases.

"How long can the public spend? Where can the line be drawn?", MacDonald said in June. The Crowley-Ault administration continues to skim money from student health services to subsidize the school's pro sports teams, a practice now about a decade old.

Last July, MacDonald expressed worries about IRS troubles arising from money generated by a Humboldt County gold mine donated to the university. The mine's proceeds are funneled through - surprise - the UNR Foundation.

"It's a brilliantly constructed system, with foundations set up to shield the university from accountability to the public," one official said. Fearing retaliation, that official must remain nameless. "Until the structure is changed, it won't matter who sits on the board of regents," the longtime official added.

"The university culture pulls you in," the official said. "New regents are indoctrinated upfront in kind of a 'don't ask-don't tell' policy.

Mary Ellen McMullen should respond to these important, and until now unaddressed, issues. So should her opponent, motion picture critic and longtime UNR art teacher Howard Rosenberg. They're both in the phone book.

I have notified Prof. Rosenberg. I was unable to reach Mrs. McMullen before deadline. I'll be glad to accept statements from both candidates for next Sunday's column.

RAISING HELL WITH MA BELL: Last week, you may have seen a Nevada Bell notice warning consumers about long distance slamming. The aggrieved consumer who brought that to the phone company's attention was me. A young woman called during the World Series, asking to speak to whomever's in charge of paying AT&T long distance bills. Usually, I respond with "I don't give information to strangers" and get back to the game.

Alas, I made the mistake of saying "that's me." At that point, I had given the slammer critically useful information, confirming her guess about AT&T. That's all she really needed to engineer a "slam," a fraudulent switch of long distance carriers. When I challenged her credentials, she got very nasty and hung up on me. I had merely asked for a phone number where I could call her back. She said "you can't, call Nevada Bell at the number on your phone bill."


Nevada Bell told me they employ no one calling customers offering to "give them just one bill and saving them 25% in the process." Nevada Bell also offers no safeguards for the public.

Figuring I might soon have those con artists try to switch my long distance carrier, I called Ma Bell for help. How I might put a warning in the system that I want to be notified before any switching? Can't be done, said Nevada Bell.

"I've never heard of a place that doesn't offer a 'pick-freeze,'" said an amazed AT&T representative, who further informed me that your local phone company gets five bucks for processing every switch order. For seven years, Nevada Bell's parent PacBell has offered the slam-protection system in California. Nevada Bell will offer it starting next year, a result of a Reno consumer's complaint at a public hearing last summer. Nevada is behind the times protecting ratepayers, as usual.

Meanwhile, you can call 1-700-555-4141 to check your long distance carrier of record. I remain at risk of a tape being sent to Nevada Bell telling their computers to switch me from AT&T to Rocco Smashnose's Long Distance and Sausage Shipping Company headquartered in the Cayman Islands with branches in Italy. All Ma Bell will do is check to see that Rocco has my correct name and address. He already has my long distance carrier. And Ma Bell will have Rocco's five bucks, courtesy of you and me.

PARTING SHOT: A few weeks ago, my post office box rent came due. I paid it eight days before the due date, mailing it at my home branch in the post office's own return envelope. My check had to travel a net total of about 20 feet. It took nine days to make the journey, resulting in my being locked out of my own fully prepaid mailbox. Makes the mailboxes below seem a whole lot more attractive.

Be well. Raise hell.

Andrew Barbano is a Reno-based syndicated columnist and 28-year Nevadan.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Daily Sparks Tribune since 1988.
This column originally published 11/3/96. Copyright © 1996, 2010 Andrew Barbano | U-News | Bulletins + Almanac
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Copyright © 1982-2010 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 42-year Nevadan, editor of and; and former chair of the City of Reno's Citizens Cable Compliance Committee, He is producer of Nevada's annual César Chávez Day celebration and serves as second vice-president, political action chair and webmaster of the Reno-Sparks NAACP. As always, his opinions are strictly his own. E-mail

Barbwire by Barbano premiered in the Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune on Aug. 12, 1988, and has originated in those parts ever since. Tempus fugit.

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