A state lawsuit filed June 24 in Carson City alleges the Nevada Wildlife Commission violated regulations in May when it approved Heritage Trust grants to outside groups despite incomplete applications or questionable projects, and in one case voted "to use state money for a project in which the applicant proposed the use of illegal methods of predator control."
The suit was filed by Paul Dixon, chairman of the Clark County wildlife advisory board, one of 17 local bodies around the state that review and make recommendations to the commission on wildlife issues.
"This is truly about process, following the rules and regulations," Dixon told The Associated Press.
Besides the lawsuit, three open meeting law complaints by two people over how the commission and subcommittee meetings were handled have been filed with the state attorney general's office. A separate ethics complaint also has been filed by a former commissioner against an incumbent, claiming conflicts of interests.
The board approved more than $400,000 for predator control projects from the trust that in the past has been mostly used for habitat improvements and studies. State law governing the trust was amended in 2005 to allow its use for predator control.
Criteria for awarding grants is set by regulation. Among other things, applicants must describe the project, provide maps of the location and a detailed plan and breakdown of costs, including volunteer hours and equipment. Priority is to be given to projects that have additional money resources, demonstrate a need for more funds, and involve habitat restoration and improvement of a "long-term or permanent nature."
The lawsuit seeks an injunction blocking funding for projects that don't meet criteria and a court order that the commission cannot approve applications that don't comply with regulations.
Deputy Attorney General Bryan Stockton said he will "vigorously defend this commission's authority to exercise it's duties."
"Part of what the suit says attacks the discretion of the commission to make decisions," he said. "That part I feel confident we have a strong case for."
Besides claims that requirements weren't met, "nearly 45 percent of the available Heritage funds were awarded to just two applicants," the suit said. "None of these three projects had additional sources of money to fund the project or involved habitat restoration and improvement of a long-term and permanent nature."
Those applicants — Hunters Alert and Nevada Alliance 4 Wildlife — were awarded a combined $201,130 for predator control, mainly the killing of mountain lions and coyotes, records show. Another $233,000 approved for the groups in 2010 was reauthorized for the current fiscal year.
Grants to Nevada Alliance 4 Wildlife is the focus of an ethics complaint against Commissioner Scott Raine of Eureka by David McNinch, a former wildlife commissioner who alleges Raine has a conflict of interest in voting for those projects.
The group is headed by Pat Laughlin. The complaint, according to documents obtained by the AP, alleges that Laughlin's father, Mike Laughlin, and Raine's mother, Lee Raine, have a long-term, "live-in" relationship.
The complaint argues Scott Raine and Pat Laughlin "are the effective equivalents of step brothers," and Raine should disclose his relationship or recuse himself from voting on matters involving Nevada Alliance 4 Wildlife.
It questions Raine's votes on seven occasions in the past year.
The issue was first raised at a meeting last year, drawing a curt response from Raine who said, "the last time somebody asked me a question like that they lost teeth."
Raine, contacted by phone Friday, said he's "heard noise" about an ethics complaint and called it a "waste of government money."
"There's nothing there," he said. "There's no money involved anywhere. There's no relationship."
He said Nevada Alliance 4 Wildlife won't receive the grant money, which instead will be funneled directly to the U.S. Wildlife Services to carry out the predator control operation. The alliance's proposals, he said, would help protect sage grouse.
"It's a pretty noble cause," he said, adding the proposal was "reasonable, more thought out, with good scientific backing."
"You fund the best ones that are out there," Raine said.