Dennis Myers: running for sheriff at the national level

From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, 32 percent of all savings and loan institutions in the United States failed. Congress hardly saw it coming and as usual, Wall Street figures stayed out of jail.

This was a one trillion dollar scandal, and I have often wondered if members of Congress might have been more alert and better prepared if they had not been spending so much of their time running for sheriff.

Congress spends a ridiculous amount of time on issues and programs that are really none of their business, like school uniforms and phones for neighborhood watch groups. Their favorite diversion is crime. I was reminded of this last week when U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s bill to deal with elder abuse passed the Senate.

It should be noted that Nevada already has an elder abuse law. It was sponsored by Assemblymember Steve Coulter in the 1981 Nevada Legislature – Assembly Bill 157. Other states have similar measures if they feel it is necessary.

As a result, Masto’s bill doesn’t do much directly about elder abuse. Since enforcement is already taken care of in most states at the local level, her bill deals principally with administration: “The Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act expands data collection and information sharing among federal, state, and local authorities to better prevent and respond to all forms of elder abuse; improves training of federal investigators and prosecutors to better identify and address the exploitation and neglect of elders; ensures that each judicial district has at least one prosecutor with experience in dealing with these types of cases; establishes an Elder Justice Coordinator at the Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Consumer Protection; and increases penalties for the perpetrators of these offenses, including mandatory forfeiture, to deter future crimes.”

Some of these are of dubious usefulness (increasing penalties is standard). “Ensuring” that each judicial district has a prosecutor with elder abuse expertise is quite a challenge in Nevada. Many of the small counties have no attorneys – never mind prosecutors, let alone prosecutors with specialties. They have to recruit lawyers from elsewhere to serve as their district attorneys.

Cortez Masto’s focus on judicial districts instead of counties makes this task a little easier, because the federal government provides money that is distributed through the state attorney general’s office to provide one-year grants for just this purpose in tri-county arrangements. But that means using deputy attorneys general as prosecutors, and that further dilutes Nevada’s traditionally decentralized, locally-based prosecution system, with the result that the prosecutor is not in touch with local sensibilities.

I once wrote a piece about U.S. Sen. Harry Reid introducing a drunken driving measure, questioning why he was spending his time on traffic offenses. I got a note back from him arguing it dealt with interstate commerce. That explained the AUTHORITY for such legislation, but not WHY Congress dabbles in local issues. If they want to deal with such matters, why not run for the state Legislature?

One of the best arguments against Congress writing crime legislation is that they stink at it. Since 1971 the federal government has been fighting a war on drugs that has turned sale of illicit drugs into a major industry and wildly increased drug use. One feature of that war is forfeiture of ill-gotten gains, with a built-in conflict of interest: Police get to keep the proceeds of forfeitures with no accountability.

The result? In Clark County Nevada, a couple’s private plane was taken and never returned and they were never charged with anything. In Los Angeles County, California, an army of police descended on a ranch in search of pot, shot the owner dead in front of his new wife, found no pot, and then discovered they were out of their jurisdiction. No prosecution.

Note that Cortez Masto’s bill includes “mandatory forfeiture, to deter future crimes.” By the criminals or by the police?

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.