This is an edition of the University Scandals 96-97 series, selected installments of which were submitted for Pulitzer Prize consideration. Click here to access the archive.
A good theatrical producer would opt for tradition, someplace with a rep for underwhelming the public's expectations by never failing to reach new lows.
And so it comes to pass that the theft of the election of University of Nevada Regent Howard Rosenberg has been scheduled for this Thursday morning at the only place within his district - hell, the only place in Nevada - worthy of such a task.
The words trip off the tongue like sardines frozen in molasses. Reno City Hall, where secret voting instructions have sometimes been conveyed by the position of a certain coffee cup on the table. Reno City Hall, a physical metaphor mirroring the town which built it: ready to collapse into the basement at the slightest tectonic nudge. Reno "what? me worry?" City Hall: Why enact this morning what we will surely change this afternoon? Let's do lunch at the Mapes.
Reno City Hall, server of the zoning ordinance du jour. Where the best policy is no policy.
Which brings me to the Nevada Commission on Ethics, Grand Inquisitor of Howard Rosenberg. The law which established it more than a decade ago ordered the commission to establish rules of operation. That such standards have never been adopted becomes understandable when you look at the body's annual budget, which demonstrates the value accorded proper ethics by our legislature. Suffice it to say that the Congolese Navy and the Bangladeshi office of child labor rights look well-endowed by comparison.
The flouting of its enabling legislation does not stop the commission from following the Nevada open meeting law. Save when it chooses not to.
This, then, is the venue of virtual if not virtuous reality chosen by university administrators to draw and quarter Rosenberg for the crime of winning an election he was supposed to lose. Not suprisingly, the public seems quite confused as to why the power structure is so vigorously attempting to force Prof. Rosenberg to choose between his beloved students and the office which he duly won last November.
First and foremost, remember that the University and Community College System of Nevada Board of Regents brought no action against anyone. With UNR Pres. Joe Crowley skulking with intent to lurk, Las Vegas regent and board chairman Madison Graves II asked Chancellor Richard Jarvis to file a complaint. The thick document from system attorney Donald Klasic sheds no light on the issue of motivation. Mr. Klasic cites provisions of Nevada law as prohibiting longtime professor Rosenberg from teaching while serving as an unpaid regent.
If the distinguished gentlemen were so concerned about the law, why did they do nothing about 10-year Sparks regent James Eardley? The same law which the U-Boat commanders say bars Rosenberg from collecting his professor's salary also applies to Mr. Eardley's retirement income. "A member of the Board of Regents shall not be interested, directly or indirectly, in any contract created by the Board of Regents or in the profits thereof," reads lawyer Klasic's plastic sarcastic against Rosenberg. The same language applies to Mr. Eardley, whose longtime pension as a former community college president certainly qualifies under "any contract created by the Board of Regents."
I asked the ethics commission to look into the Eardley parallel to point out the discrimination against the outspoken Rosenberg. Regents Eardley and Rosenberg are reasonable and honorable men who would know a conflict of interest when they see one. The law which brings both before the star chamber was originally passed to regulate relationships between the university and its vendors. It was on the books for a decade before regent Eardley was elected.
So why use it against Rosenberg? I submit that ample reasons can be found in the plethora of financial improprieties first revealed here and later confirmed by two major audits of the university system. For instance, if the University of Nevada continues its pattern of clandestine borrowing and deficit spending, its unrestricted endowment of $56 million, which took 100 years to build up, will be gone by 2000. In just the 95-96 fiscal year, $12,783,522 of the seed corn was consumed.
Only a more aggressive board of regents, presenting facts to a now-aroused legislature, can stop the red-ink hemorrhage and long term damage to the university system. The will of the voters must not be overturned by administrators wanting to maintain a disastrous status quo.
JURASSIC KLASIC: Look for lots of wrangling leading up to Thursday's hearing over the role of lawyer Klasic, who recently announced his resignation. In a Feb. 11 letter, Rosenberg asked Klasic to walk away. "A probable conflict of interest existed when you purported to act against a regent-elect on behalf of the chancellor and another regent," Rosenberg wrote. "Now that I have entered office, your continued participation presents an irreconcilable conflict of interest. You have no apparent authorization from the board of regents in this matter. The continued participation by yourself against a sitting regent is unseemly and, in my opinion, is of itself possibly unethical," Rosenberg concluded.
Klasic and Uberegent Graves both gave Rosenberg the finger, hiding behind a Nevada Supreme Court rule which says lawyers must act in the best interest of the organization if an officer or employee of same is acting skulduggerously. Too bad Klasic isn't always such a purist.
In April of 1995, Regent Eardley tried to engineer a censure vote against Las Vegas Regent Nancy Price. Rather than act at a public meeting, Eardley tried to take a secret vote by fax machine, breaking Nevada's oft-violated open meeting law. Klasic defended the offending regents in Washoe District Judge Janet Berry's court and helped them beat the rap, at least so far. (Outrageously, the inexperienced Berry partly based her decision on Reno Gazette-Journal editorials advocating closed meetings such as out-of-state retreats. The case was such a farce that the attorney general is taking it to the state supreme court. Otherwise, we won't have an open meeting law anymore.)
In June of 1995, Klasic came down on the other side of the fax-your-vote issue. He advised the UNLV Foundation that arriving at written consensus outside of an open meeting is flatly illegal. Whom does he serve? Which advice was in the best interest of the organization? Certainly not both. Fax ballots cannot be simultaneously legal and illegal.
Only one conclusion can be drawn: Klasic acts like a hired gun defense attorney, not a public employee charged with protecting the taxpayers' institutional interest. The public is not paying him to be Humpty Dumpty, who said "when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more, nor less." We pay him to look out for us.
In the Rosenberg matter, he purports to act for the good of the organization when the board he serves gave him permission to do nothing. Worse, he is moving at the behest of one board member (Graves) against another (Rosenberg). He is Rosenberg's lawyer, too, since he works for the board of regents of the university system. That's textbook conflict of interest.
To paraphrase my Tribune colleague in columny Dennis Myers, Klasic is using public money to prosecute his own client.
Klasic's presence in the case may be unethical, but in front of our raggedy ethics commission at madcap Reno City Hall, who's gonna notice? Be there or be square this Thursday at 9:00 a.m. And bring a kazoo.
Be well. Raise hell.
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