By Dan Steninger


Elko County’s grand jury has been busy since we last updated readers of Nevada Journal. So busy that high state officials are calling for the heads of somebody, anybody out here in northeastern Nevada; so busy that Governor Mike, now executive editor of the Las Vegas Sun, has been drawn onto the scene to try to muddy the waters with his column.

For those who missed the earlier dispatches, the grand jury was established after the citizens of Elko County became fed up with the tactics being used by federal land managers — the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management — to make life difficult for those who hold the quaint notion that the term natural resources should be taken literally: that the grass that otherwise would feed range fires should instead be fed to cattle, for instance, or that the ore in the ground ought to be dug up and processed to provide minerals for those who want it, jobs for those who dig it and dividends for those who invest in the digging.

To the Forest Service and BLM, a resource is something to be conserved, not exploited. So they do what they can to put a stop to productive activities. And when those agencies’ inane regulations fail to do the trick, those who signed the petition to create the grand jury suspect, other tactics are employed such as illegally conspiring with preservationist groups to keep the public from infesting the public lands. That was the charter of the grand jury, which went to work in February of last year.

The first finding of the jury — an accidental one — was that federal land managers are above the law. The agencies said their people do not have to answer subpoenas in Nevada courts. Grand jurors now are weighing whether to appeal that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court after being turned down by U.S. Judge Edward Reed and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the meantime, the lack of cooperation from the federal agents blocked any indictments stemming from the grand jury’s second finding — that the Forest Service intentionally destroyed a spring in North Ruby Valley. The Forest Service refused to tell the jury who was driving the heavy equipment that closed off that water source.

That brings the uninitiated up to date and brings us to the third major finding of the grand jury — the finding that has Mike O’Callaghan and Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Director Pete Morros so bent out of shape.

On February 13 of this year, the grand jury made a presentment stating that six government agents were guilty of the gross misdemeanor crime of oppression under color of office. What riled O’Callaghan and Morros was the fact that four of those accused agents are state employees: Nevada Division of Wildlife (NDOW) Director Willie Molini and employees Duane Erikson, Larry Barngrover and Kenneth Grey. The other two agents are Forest Service employees Ben Siminoe and John Inman.

The crime, according to the grand jury, was forcing Independence Mining Company to pay half a million dollars to Molini in exchange for permits to expand a mine located on Forest Service land. Such forced payoffs are common practice and are officially (euphemistically) called "off-site mitigation" money. In the big cities it goes by the term protection money.

Since the "mitigation" took place in 1989, though, the statute of limitations had passed and no indictments could be brought. Morros has demanded the withdrawal of the presentment and an apology from grand jurors or, he says, the state will have no choice but to sue the county. Morros said he had no criticism of the actions of Molini, et al and that the fine men and women of NDOW are above reproach. (Which brought a lot of snickers from those who remembered reading about Molini hopping in a state car, going to a Fallon bar for a few drinks and getting his ribs broken in a brawl.)

County Commissioner Tony Lesperance gave Morros the benefit of the doubt on that one, suggesting he meant Molini was above the law, like the federal agents, not reproach. Commissioner Royce Hackworth was equally unimpressed with Morros’ threatened lawsuit — comfortable in the knowledge Frankie Sue Del Papa would handle the case for the state.

Without dissecting all the contortions contained in O’Callaghan’s piece in the March 10 Sun, suffice to say Elko County accepts the offer made in the headline of his piece: "It’s time to tell Elko grand jury `Let’s get it on’."

Elko District Judge Mike Memeo, overseer of the grand jury, has already suggested the same thing. If Morros should want to "get it on," all he has to do is persuade Molini and his underlings to waive the statute of limitations and have their day in court. So far, Morros hasn’t responded to that suggestion.

Dan Steninger is editorial page editor at the Elko Daily Free Press.


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