Quoth the powerbroker:
"....uhhhhh yeahhh, .. Okay, great... Uh..
Huh.. What can I ... go ahead on.."

  by Steve Miller
  copyright (c) 1996, Electric Nevada

It was the very end of August and the week before the school bond vote in Washoe County. If you were at Electric Nevada, you were putting together a story on the topic.  
The whole task, you think, looks more or less routine. You've talked to the local registrar's office about the contribution and expenditure reports filed by the groups for and against the $196 million bond issue, and now you're following up by phoning the groups themselves.
Dave Bianchi, treasurer for the pro-bond group, CCSOS (Citizens Committee to Save Our Schools), had signed that group's form, and so, to get a quote or two, you think you'll call him.
But when you call the telephone number listed on the form, you don't get Dave Bianchi.
Instead, it is a woman's voice answering the phone. "McMullen Strategic Group," she says.
Say what?
McMullen Strategic Group?
The media and political consulting firm of bigtime power-broker, lawyer and casino-industry lobbyist Samuel P. McMullen?
McMullen, a longtime operative for Democratic Party causes, is coordinating the pro-school-bond operation?
There'd been nothing about that in the coverage by local establishment media of the school bond campaign. That the group opposing the bond, the Incline-Village-based CARES (Citizens Associated for Responsible Education in our Schools) had hired a consultant, has been mentioned. But nothing about who was strategizing on the other side.
You identify yourself, giving your spiel about how Electric Nevada is an Internet newspaper covering news of Nevada and eastern California, and that you are doing a story on the upcoming Washoe County bond vote, and therefore would like to talk to Mr. McMullen.
He picks up the receiver.
"Is this Steve Mulvenon?" he says. Mulvenon is publicity chief for the Washoe County School District. It later emerges that McMullen has been working with Mulvenon, point man for the district drive to sell the bond issue, since as far back as February.
"No. Steve Miller," you say. Maybe you give the spiel again. Later, you're not sure.
"Hold on," says McMullen, going off-line again.
A couple of minutes later he is back. "Okay," he says.
You begin with what you think is a simple question -- how long has he been working on this campaign for the school-bond.
But McMullen, it turns out, is coming from a very different mindset.
"Who are you?" he demands, bluntly.
Whoa.
You thought all that had been explained. Hadn't the receptionist relayed the information? Hadn't you?
Maybe not.
So, once again, you identify yourself, and give the spiel about what Electric Nevada is. And you wait.
Silence.
And so you explain some more -- about how you got the phone number from the Washoe County Registrar form, called, and discovered that the McMullen Strategic Group has a central role in the pro-bond campaign. That last is a subtle test, to see if he will deny it.
He doesn't. There is just more silence, and you get a strong feeling McMullen is simply confounded to find that his role in the campaign has been unveiled.
At last he begins to speak, and since you're taking verbatim notes, you get it all down.
"....uhhhhh yeahhh," he says. "Okay, great... Uh, huh... What can I ... go ahead, keep going."
Interesting, you think.
"So, first of all I wanted to ask," you say, "how long have you been on this?"
But McMullen is still suspicious.
"What's your interest in this?" he asks.
"I'm doing a story on it," you say, "and it seems like there's..."
"On internet news?" he interjects.
"Yes. It seems like there's some major players operating here."
"Eeyeah..." he says.
You wonder if he's stalling for time. You've never interviewed anybody quite like this. Maybe this is how high-priced powerbrokers operate in situations like this.
"And so I was wondering when you'd been retained," you press on. And you ask if, perhaps, the pro-bond group retained his firm after some bad press over incorrect filings with the county? At that point you don't yet know that McMullen himself had made the filings.
"Internet news?" asks McMullen.
"Yeah. It's an Internet newspaper."
"Where.. what's it called?"
"Electric Nevada. It's been up about six months."
"Electric Nevada... Well... So what's your angle?"
Wow, you think, this guy is wary.
Eventually McMullen condescends to more or less answer some questions. He is not being paid, he tells you, but simply contributing his time and energy to help in what he sees as a good cause. But most of the questions you ask get strangely opaque, apparently evasive, responses.
When you first ask who beside Bianchi are officers of the pro-bond advocacy group, McMullen goes to talking about how two groups were merged together, but that there are no officers.
And so you then turn to the membership of the merged group.
Your question is direct and explicit: "Do you have a membership list?"
But the answer is peculiarly fog-like, almost as though the man has some kind of mental disability:
"No. No. Just basically a nametag we thought that we were going to use for that committee that had already been .. that was being constituted.."
You press on: "So the question is, who is the 'we?' I mean, It's you..."
"Dave Bianchi, myself, uhhhhm... functionally, that's the only person I really ended up talking to.." says McMullen.
That's preposterous, you think. He's already contradicted that (later he'll contradict it again). Either McMullen is not being candid or he has a very impaired memory. But you've got a story to do for your next edition so you move on.
Later, you mention the interview with Sam McMullen to a friend -- a source who's watched him operate at the State Legislature as lobbyist for the casino industry.
"The glass alone, in his Caughlin Ranch house, costs more than most houses," remarks the source. "He's got a huge mansion up there."
It's a testimonial, no doubt, to opportunity in modern-day America that even someone afflicted with a mental disability (when he talks to reporters) can achieve great financial success. Here's an alphabetical listing of the organizations McMullen represented at the 1995 session of the Nevada state legislature:
Barrick Gold Strike, Kraft, Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, Nature Conservancy, Northern Gaming Industry Association, Nevada Broadcasters Association, Nevada Humane Society, Nevada Self-Insurers Association, State Board of Nursing, Philip Morris U.S.A., Regional Medical Services Authority, Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority, Sierra Pacific Power Company [for water issues], Sprint, and the Washoe Regional Water Planning Coalition.

-------

For decades McMullen has prospered from identifying the political and legal wants of powerful economic interests and then helping them get what they want. Some twenty years ago he was an attorney for the Nevada Gaming Control Board. Then, like many GCB alumni, he took the expertise he'd developed on the public payroll as a regulator over to the other side, as a hired representative of the casino industry.
It's entirely conceivable that someone who has a well-developed eye for the main chance might want, on occasion, to indulge in a little disinterested public service. But it's also conceivable that such an activity might just be business as usual -- this time for a wealthy and politically powerful interest that also, coincidentally, is a longtime ally.
In Nevada, publicly financed education is very big business. Not only is it by far the largest part of the state budget -- hundreds of millions of dollars -- but in even in Washoe County, the Washoe County School District is the largest single employer.
Commensurately, the very largest political power center in the state, the teachers union -- the Nevada State Education Association -- rides jealous herd over control of the hundreds of millions of dollars of public expenditure

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involved. The NSEA -- and its Washoe County face, the Washoe County Teachers Association (WCTA) -- is part of the NEA (National Education Association), which is the largest, most powerful labor union in the country.
Not for nothing is the NSEA called the '800-lb gorilla of Nevada politics.' It not only puts more money into Nevada electoral contests than any other group or industry in the state -- when we last checked, a few years ago, more than half the PACs in the Secretary of State's filing drawer were different facades of the teachers' union -- but the NSEA also has a fearsome weapon called 'in kind contributions.' Those are all the free precinct walkers and phone-bank people the union can dispatch to work for its friends and against its foes, as it seeks to protect and expand its hold on the public resources that support public education.
The Washoe County Teachers Association very much wanted the school bond issue to pass. NSEA president Virginia Doran, a member of the CCSOS group, described in loving detail the precinct operations that were going to be run out of the NSEA's Reno headquarters to put, she hoped, the near $200-million issue over the top -- the same way the union has always worked to put tame, easily managed, school board candidates over the top.
But in the last few days before the Sept. 3 vote, polling had demonstrated that Washoe County voters no longer found the school district administration, the school board, and the proponents of the property tax hike, credible.
At that time McMullen -- a reconstruction of events shows -- cast about for some way to avert disaster. It was a remark repeated a couple of time by CARES consultant Mike Reed -- a fellow lobbyist in the past for Sierra Pacific Power Company -- that seemed to offer the best opening.
Reed had generously said that, once the election was over, both sides should sit down and figure out jointly which way to go in the future. That something had to be done for the increasing student population was clear, he said; the real issue was how best to meet the challenge.
McMullen took that ball and ran with it. The lawyer-lobbyist, with CCSOS essentially in his hip pocket, went up to Incline Village and, at the home of CARES member Ted Harris, negotiated with the CARES leadership.
In a nine-hour Saturday marathon, the two sides hashed out terms. In telephone calls to members of the pro-bond leadership down in Reno, Electric Nevada is told, McMullen cleared point after point.
School district superintendent Mary Nebgen, members of the school board, leaders of the Builders Association of Northern Nevada and the Greater Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce -- all were contacted by McMullen and all gave their assent to the terms, which McMullen was typing, in front of the CARES people, into the Harris home computer.
The next day the Truckee Meadows was startled to learn that the two sides had come to an agreement: the pro-bond leadership had agreed to support three key conditions demanded by CARES, and the CARES leadership had agreed to support the school bond question.
But now, two months later, the Washoe County School Board is seeking bids from auditors for an estimated $300,000 management consulting contract, instead of -- as called for in the pact -- utilizing the district's fiscal advisory committee to draw up an independent management audit.
And CARES members are charging that both McMullen and Chamber of Commerce executive director Harry York -- who reportedly committed to help enforce the agreement with the school board -- have turned out to be untrustworthy.
"He [McMullen] called Harry York from the meeting a few times to get his approval of the agreement as it was negotiated back and forth," says Bill Seidler, CARES treasurer. "Sam himself typed it up on Ted Harris's computer."
"And then we took a vote. Ted voted against it; I voted for it, I was the swing vote, and I'm sorry I did it, now.
"But Ted said, 'How can we trust them?' And they said, 'Well, Nevada's a gambling state -- take a gamble.'
"And so I said, 'Okay, I'll take a gamble.' But the way these guys backed out, and [didn't hold] to their word ...
Seidler has recourse to an expletive, then he continues.
"I even asked Mike [Reed], 'Can we trust him?' Mike said, 'Bill, if Sam gives you his word, you can put it in the bank.'"
"I'm not politically involved in this state and all," says Seidler, but if I came across him for anything -- [he laughs] -- I won't take his word."
Under terms of the agreement specified in the computer file sent Electric Nevada by Ted Harris last week, the firm to conduct the management audit was to be selected by the school board from a list of recommendations developed by the district's financial advisory committee. The agreement also called for "full utilization" of that committee "to assist the District and Board in accomplishing its objectives in the most effective and beneficial ways possible..."
Instead, in early October, district superintendent Mary Nebgen and the school board directed the district's associate superintendent of operations to draft the proposed scope of the audit and request accounting firms to bid on the job.
Two weeks ago the internal auditor for the Washoe County Schools, David Smith, said that action broke even the board's own rules, adopted in 1994, which require its audit committee to "review and approve the scope" of any such job.

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Samuel P. McMullen is deeply involved in another contest for control of Nevada public education. That's the candidacy of his wife for a seat on the University of Nevada Board of Regents.
Maybe this explains, at least in part, his zeal to put the school bond over the top. Maybe this is the quid for which the Washoe County Teacher's Association and the NSEA -- the '800-lb gorilla of Nevada politics' -- are to provide the quo.
The issue of Mrs. McMullen's candidacy was explored in the Sparks Tribune a week ago Sunday by columnist Andrew Barbano.
He noted that "Mary Ellen McMullen currently sits on the [UNR] foundation's board and has used that position to help make the case for her candidacy."
Mrs. McMullen, a vice-president of the McMullen lobbying / political consulting firm, is said Barbano, "an admitted insider in what is already a proven corrupt university system."
The heart of that corruption, he argues, "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."
The UNLV Foundation was used to park the illegal hidden contract involving now-departed UNLV basketball coach Massimino, notes Barbano. It is also, he says, "basically controlled by Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn, whose Mirage Resort is a McMullen campaign donor."
As for the UNR Foundation, it paid for the use of a car by the wife of UNR President Joe Crowley.
"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," wrote Barbano.
"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," says the columnist, "is still the foundation's law firm today."
It seems to be a happy, back-scratching world there around the University foundations.
And also around the NSEA. Saturday, in a large newspaper ad suggesting how folks vote, the organization endorsed Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Spike Wilson and ...Mary Ellen McMullen.
Those precinct-walkers and phone-bank activists -- the 'in-kind contributions' the WCTA can legally deploy -- will hit the streets Tuesday.


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