By Alison Noon
CARSON CITY — A secretly recorded conversation at a Reno coffee shop between the Nevada attorney general and the state’s top casino watchdog has set off a political firestorm that includes a legislative inquiry set to begin Wednesday.
The dispute involves some of the most powerful political figures in the state and could have implications in the 2018 governor’s race.
Here’s a look at what happened and what comes next:
THE PLAYERS AND MEETING
The key figures in the saga are Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt, GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson and Nevada Gaming Control Board Chairman A.G. Burnett.
Democrats suggest Laxalt was doing the bidding of Adelson — who bankrolled his run for attorney general — when he requested an urgent meeting with the gambling regulator in March 2016. Laxalt wanted to discuss the state’s involvement in a legal battle that painted an unflattering picture of Adelson.
Laxalt drove to Reno, picked up a soon-vacation-bound Burnett from a car dealership and drove them to a coffee shop to discuss the lawsuit, Burnett says.
He was so shocked by Laxalt’s urgent and peculiar behavior, Burnett said, he decided it was in his and the state’s best interest to surrepetitiously record the conversation.
Laxalt said in a February statement that he was approached last year by representatives of Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands Corp., who asked the state to intervene in the lawsuit.
According to a transcript of Burnett’s audio recording, Laxalt took that request to the state’s gambling regulator at the coffee shop. Laxalt asked Burnett to file a legal opinion that would have favored Adelson’s company and the confidentiality of gambling audits, telling Burnett, “Don’t go soft on me.”
“I think it is a challenging request because it will look like the Sands is getting a special thing,” Laxalt said, adding “and so I wouldn’t do anything that jeopardizes me either.”
Burnett agreed “the optics would be horrendous” and said intervening in a civil case involving a casino that is licensed and regulated by his board would be a slippery slope. After Burnett argued the move would be improper and unnecessary, Laxalt backed off, saying “I’m not trying to pitch a side or anything on it.”
Burnett took the recording to the FBI. He said federal authorities found Laxalt committed no criminal offenses. But Democrats are holding the Wednesday hearing to get answers about the incident.
Burnett and the gambling agency declined to intervene in Adelson’s case, as did Laxalt. The case was later settled, and Adelson’s company paid tens of millions of dollars while acknowledging no wrongdoing.
Political fallout has ensued because Laxalt is an expected, though unannounced, Republican candidate for governor in 2018.
WHAT LAXALT SAYS
Laxalt denies wrongdoing. He has said his actions were part of the job of attorney general, which “are often time-sensitive.” He said Democrats calling for the hearing are engaging in a partisan stunt, “twisting and politicizing a routine action.”
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Lawmakers want to question Laxalt and Burnett at the hearing. The attorney general said he will attend.
Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton has proposed a bill to give the gambling board independent legal counsel.
“The Legislature has an oversight responsibility to investigate and root out anything that undermines the integrity of the gaming industry — the core of Nevada’s economy,” she said.
The Legislature has the power to impeach Laxalt and other state elected officials and could remove him from office with a simple majority in the Assembly, which Democrats have, and a two-thirds vote in the Senate, of which Democrats are three votes shy.