Nominations open for the 1997 golden screwup awards


So many guys have been wearing out gilded shovels fertilizing the fields of self-enrichment that I feel compelled to take early nominations for the 1997 Golden Screwup Awards. Winners will receive the Barbwire trophy, a gold-painted rivet mounted atop a can of mixed nuts. Your nominees are as good as mine, so start start stuffing the envelopes, please.

THE BING CROSBY DOUBLE-CROSS AWARD: The late singer once modestly described himself as having "stretched a very thin talent a very long way." Local architect Peter Wilday richly deserves nomination as the best local example of the Crosby phenomenon. He boasts a magnificent record of marketing mediocrity for an exorbitant fee.

In 1992, years before the cost overruns of the National Bowling Stadium came to light, this column exclusively published an ominous letter from the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The organization warned of the dangers of the "design it as you build it" method adopted to fast-track construction of the gold-plated downtown bowling alley. The project is now almost 100 percent (about $25 million) over budget and the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority has hit the financial skids as a result.

Wilday is still trying to collect an additional $209,000 on the job while going on to greater glory trying to finagle the building of a hotel-casino across the street. I doubt its potential for success. Guests will have to look at Wilday's ugly bowling alley from their rooms.

THE BRASS MONKEY NOMINATION goes to ex-convention authority boss Jay Milligan, ousted in disgrace but with a full wallet. Wilday never could have achieved his level of wealthy mediocrity without the wholehearted help of his bosom buddy, Jay the Inept.

THE WHATEVER HAPPENED TO PETER PAN? nomination goes to Sen. Randolph Townsend (R-Reno). My old friend won public office in 1982 after four years as a consumer crusader tilting against the windmills of the state's bloated public utility industry. I worked side by side with him in that effort which culminated in a statewide initiative petition establishing the state consumer advocate's office in 1981.

Alas, after attaining office, he turned into one of the most anti-consumer lawmakers in Carson City. He did stay true to the cause of utility consumers, but perhaps not any more. Sen. Townsend is currently in the process of rushing through a humongous piece of legislation which would reportedly remove controls on public utilities while rewarding the fatcats with low rates at the little guy's expense. Big users, such as casinos and mining companies, would enjoy substantial rate cuts while you and I would endure substantial increases - in effect subsidizing the big boys.

To provide political cover, Mr. Townsend would pervert his one achievement in public office. He proposes to deregulate more than a dozen industries by means of a 500-page bill amendment not even drafted at this writing. It would expand the consumer advocate's office, but at the same time gut the Public Service Commission. The net result seems to be a lot less consumer protection.

The wheels seem well-greased upfront. Only Assemblywoman Jan Evans (D-Sparks-Reno) voted against the shell version of Assembly Bill 366, which now goes to Mr. Townsend's senate committee for a major makeover.

The Nevada legislature has neither time nor staff to undertake such a huge task in the few weeks remaining in the current session. This is an environment rich lobbyists love. They get whatever they want in some vaguely worded bill passed at 3:00 a.m. on the last legislative day. The public finds out about the damage months or years later when the fine print is analyzed and the power bills start to come in.

THE HIGHWAY ROBBERY PRIZE: The Townsend bill will not only turn loose the gas and electricity pirates, but also leave us at the mercy of those kind and generous oil companies. Bandits like ARCO will once again be allowed to buy all the retail gas stations they want. This will drive the few remaining independents out of business and give big oil free reign to increase carefully managed gasoline prices with no fear of true competition. Townsend gets the Robbing Hood nomination in this category, while ARCO earns the nod for underhanded conduct under the hood.

THE POWER TRIP AWARD is a close race between Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn and juice lobbyist Harvey Whittemore. Wynn is a driving force behind the utility deregulation hustle. He once tried to build his own power plant for his resorts. When utilities lose large customers, their costs remain the same. Wynn's move would have raised rates for small users who would remain stuck paying for the town's utility system built with the needs of large casinos included.

Not long after regulators batted down Wynn's attempt to take his ball and go home, Townsend started making statements about how big users cost less to serve than individual households. This is classic anti-consumer creative accounting and a bogus argument. He knows better. We were both taught its fallacy in the old days when we stood on the same side.

Juice lobbyist Whittemore is also a strong contender in this category. He's behind the major oil company hustle and was one of the architects of the 1995 Tailhook Bill on behalf of his big casino clients.

THE TAILHOOK, PART DEUX AWARD will go to whichever slimeball is behind Assembly Bill 595. It extends to all businesses the exemption from liability granted to hotel-casinos after the Las Vegas Hilton Tailhook sexual predation scandal. To give an only slightly simplified example, if an employee commits rape while on the job, his employer is off the hook unless the employer ordered the worker to commit the assault. Slick lawyers and "human resource" consultants now advise their clients not to inquire too far into a potential worker's background because any prior knowledge will inhibit their ability to plead ignorance as an excuse in court.

AB 595 contains specific language exempting employers unless they could have "reasonably anticipated" misconduct. This basically legalizes a "don't ask-don't tell" personnel policy. If it passes, everything Lt. Paula Coughlin suffered at the Las Vegas Hilton will have been in vain. Every Nevada business should thus post an "enter at your own risk" warning label. Should this bill pass, the next cable guy who rapes and murders a customer will not cause a lawsuit against his employer, regardless of the worker's previous record.

DISHONORABLE MENTIONS AND POTENTIAL CONTENDERS: Hot August Nights for pushing the Reno Police Dept. to keep downtown merchants from recouping some of their losses due to street blockage by the annual car event. This is no more than a protection racket hiding behind badges under the guise of crowd control. Should the privately-held, secretive promotional group get a cut from merchant sidewalk sales, they'd probably shut up. More on this later...Speaking of damaging small businesses, don't forget W. Jaxon Baker Construction and the regional transportation commission for this year's Mill Street repaving fiasco...Last but not least comes Assemblyman Bernie Anderson (D-Sparks), for caving in to Harvey Whittemore and the tobacco lobby in retaining Nevada's weakest-in-the-nation tobacco regulation statute. For more information, call Mark Savage at the American Cancer Society, (702) 329-0609.

Be well. Raise hell.


© Andrew Barbano
Andrew Barbano is a Reno-based syndicated columnist and 28-year Nevadan.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988. This column originally published 6/22/97.

Reprints of the UNR financial scandal newsbreaks remain available for the cost of copying at
Nevada Instant Type in Sparks and both Office Depot Reno locations.