By Michelle L. Price
LAS VEGAS — Former Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson pleaded guilty Monday to wire fraud after admitting to taking about $250,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses, including leasing a luxury SUV and opening a Las Vegas nightclub.
Atkinson pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court in Las Vegas, shortly after the case against him was unsealed.
The Democrat’s plea was part of a deal with prosecutors, who say Atkinson filed false campaign reports, co-mingled his personal money and campaign donations in his campaign fundraising account over eight years and made about $450,000 in expenses that weren’t disclosed on his campaign finance reports. .
U.S. Attorney for Nevada Nicholas Trutanich said poor record keeping made it hard to determine exactly how all the money from 2010 through 2018 was spent, but at least $249,900 was spent for personal uses.
According to court documents, Atkinson spent $75,000 of the campaign donations to open and operate the Urban Lounge nightclub in downtown Las Vegas, where he often hosted political fundraisers for other Nevada Democrats. He also spent $20,000 to lease a Jaguar SUV, $8,600 to repay a personal loan and at least $100,000 to pay off credit card charges.
Atkinson, who tearfully resigned on the floor of the state Senate last week, declined to comment after his court hearing Monday morning.
Atkinson was first elected to the Assembly in 2002 and elected to the state Senate in 2012. He was the first black, openly gay member of the Legislature when he came out in 2013 during a debate in the Senate on same-sex marriage.
Trutanich said at a news conference following Atkinson’s plea that investigators carried out a search warrant in late January related to the case and Atkinson’s lawyer then contacted the U.S. Attorney’s Office, resulting in the plea deal announced Monday.
The investigation started several years ago when the Nevada Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees state campaign finance reports, referred the case to the FBI, he said. Trutanich said that while the tip came in several years ago, the case didn’t come to a head until 2019 because fraud schemes rely heavily on documents and take time to uncover.
“Theft of any kind is unacceptable. But theft of campaign contributions from a sitting public official is particularly troubling,” Trutanich said. “When a candidate diverts campaign money from its intended purposes to line his own pockets, a donor’s confidence in our democratic process is undermined.”
The 49-year-old Atkinson is due back in court on July 11 to be sentenced. The charge he pleaded to comes with a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. But under the deal with prosecutors, he’s expected to face up to 33 months behind bars.
Atkinson is not in federal custody, but he had to surrender his passport as a condition of his release.