Jon Ralston on two cases that illustrate the need for stronger disclosure laws

Sun, Sep 2, 2007 (12:59 p.m.)

In 1999 Michael McDonald jump - started Lynette Boggs McDonald's political career when he gathered the votes to have her appointed to the Las Vegas City Council.

They were political allies, Notre Dame fans, friends, enemies for a time and then friends again. Theirs is a serpentine story that now brings them back together as targets of law enforcement in unrelated cases that nevertheless raise similar questions about proportionality of crimes, guilt by association and gaps in laws.

Boggs (she is now divorced) was indicted last week on four felony charges related to a scandal made into a minor motion picture by the Culinary Union, which filmed her living outside her district and pressed for legal action. McDonald is the target of a federal tax probe that has helped uncover that, as a councilman, he took at least $5,000 a month for a time from the Patti and Sgro law firm and accepted a $30,000 loan from a priest, Father Dave Casaleggio, to help pay his taxes.

Both look guilty as sin - but just how sinful are their alleged crimes? In the era of the G-Sting hangover, a benumbed public hears that a public official is indicted or about to be and not only assumes guilt (because they all are corrupt) but figures they are equally despicable (Larry Craig is the same as Duke Cunningham; Boggs and McDonald are Erin Kenny and Dario Herrera).

Boggs is being prosecuted for crimes that no one who has followed politics for any length of time should doubt have been committed by others and either gone undetected or unpunished. But what was District Attorney David Roger supposed to do when presented with a case all but signed, sealed and delivered by the Culinary Union, which wanted her off the County Commission?

So, yes, there was disproportionate treatment. But it's hard to cry "everybody does it" as a defense, which others have tried, because that implies it should be perpetually sanctioned.

There are some potentially precedent-setting legal issues about residency raised by the Boggs case, which may have to be settled by the state Supreme Court. Boggs essentially acknowledged she had erred in paying her nanny out of campaign funds - eventually paying the tab with a personal check. But even here, what is the standard for using campaign funds for personal purposes? Again, this could be precedent-setting.

Both issues could be clarified if the people who make the disclosure laws and want them to be as Swiss cheese -like as possible were to shore them up. But then legislators couldn't live where they want or use their campaign expenses for borderline purposes - the crimes Boggs supposedly committed.

McDonald's case is much, much different. He is being scrutinized by the Internal Revenue Service and a grand jury has been hearing testimony.

The payments from Patti and Sgro may well have been to take advantage of McDonald's position at a time one obnoxious pundit called him The Shadow Mayor. Nice to have the main City Hall inside player on the payroll doing investigations - even though McDonald never had a P.I. license.

The payments were never disclosed because the financial disclosure forms only require an elected official to disclose income from a "business entity," so the Patti and Sgro checks apparently went through McDonald's company, Alpha Omega Strategies. McDonald, though, reported the payments on his taxes, which is how they were discovered.

Both the Sgro stipend and the Casaleggio loan, supposedly to pay off a tax bill, may be innocent, even eleemosynary acts. But these are the dots the feds want to connect here: Sgro is imprisoned strip club owner Rick Rizzolo's lawyer. Casaleggio is a Rizzolo intimate who visited the ex-Crazy Horse Too owner in prison this month. So, the feds think, the money was Rizzolo's, laundered through Sgro and Casaleggio to McDonald.

Sgro and Casaleggio deny such speculation, and it appears all authorities have now is smoke with no fire. (McDonald won't comment.)

We should have known about the law firm payments years ago, if lawmakers would mandate more detail on the oxymoronically named financial disclosures. Maybe that wouldn't have stopped McDonald from taking the money, and elected officials can always choose not to report such payments. Tighter laws related to both pending cases might not necessarily make politicians more honest but they might induce some shame. Both of these ex-politicians had their elective careers terminated after public disclosure of serious allegations shortly before their terms were up. Their alleged crimes hardly seem of G-Sting proportions, but it is a sign of the times that they may end up in the same place where those defendants now reside.

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