MY COLUMN: Laxalt tries to get train wreck back on track

Adam Laxalt’s campaign for attorney general has become what his old law firm’s evaluation committee once said of his legal skills: a train wreck.

His bid has gone off the rails since the disclosure last week that a review committee at his former law firm essentially thought he was incompetent, even using the unfortunate shorthand of labeling him a “train wreck,” asserting he needs to "address basic legal principles" and has "judgment issues and doesn't seem to understand what to do."

As Laxalt tries to salve his wounds and get his campaign back on track, his damage control effort has been both shaky and brazen. At first, he dissembled, as if he had no idea he had been so poorly evaluated (he knew) and his campaign manager, Robert Uithoven, asserted of the review document that “its authenticity as an official evaluation is clearly in question.”

Laxalt then tried to use the disclosure to raise money by playing the victim, pulling out the tried and true “petty politics” card. And, finally, his former law firm, Lewis & Roca, released a letter, surely under a lawsuit threat because of the leaked internal documents. The statement authenticated the evaluations but said Laxalt had made “excellent contributions” to the firm and was welcome back “should he desire to do so in the future.”

For now, Laxalt seems intent on making sure that future is not in November should he lose the race to Secretary of State Ross Miller, who has done an imitation of an invisible mute since the news broke. (“Let this play out, and keep your mouth shut,” some consultant surely told him.)

Meanwhile, Laxalt’s supporters insist the documents will “backfire” because of the counter-narrative from his military career, or at least what he wants people to know about it, and that this will appear to voters as a sleazy political hit orchestrated by Miller supporters. Former Gov. Bob List, a key and ardent Laxalt backer, says the release was orchestrated to "suggest (Laxalt) is unqualified to be AG."

"This was perhaps the dirtiest moves I have ever witnessed," the former governor told me. "This will backfire on the opposition in my opinion."

Laxalt’s one hope could be Las Vegas Sands, which is fully invested in Laxalt and will throw him a lifeline. I’m told Sheldon Adelson is undaunted, partly because he knows what every insider in Nevada knows: If Miller becomes attorney general, he is the frontrunner to succeed Gov. Brian Sandoval. (There has not been a Democratic governor in this state since Miller’s father, Bob, left office in 1999.)

But as Laxalt struggles to find oxygen for his suffocating bid, putting out glowing military records and trying to make the law firm’s “improper” leak the issue, there’s a reason this sensational revelation is potentially fatal.

Laxalt, despite his political pedigree (his grandfather is Paul Laxalt, the former Nevada senator and governor), was unknown in Nevada before he announced this year he wanted to be attorney general. He has no reservoir of accomplishments or goodwill built up here over years that might have cushioned the blow.

The public isn’t paying attention to this race, but when voters engage, they will see thousands of gross rating points about Train Wreck Laxalt. He and his GOP friends can wail about a political hit. He can question the law firm’s ethics in releasing private records. He can keep releasing documents from his time in the Navy as a judge advocate general that contain laudatory reviews.

But what he can’t escape is that the Lewis & Roca documents are authentic, they are relatively recent and, as one veteran lawyer told me of the evaluation, “Never seen one this harsh.”

I found it interesting that Laxalt’s day-after reaction was to attack the “improper release of an associate review document from years ago.” Yes, two years. Almost BC.

But then Laxalt proceeded to release documents from his Navy job, much different than a civil, commercial or attorney general’s job and from….eight years ago. That’s more relevant?

It’s worth exploring some more recent history, the damage control, and where this might go from here.


Some of Laxalt’s allies already have attacked some of those who did the evaluations, suggesting they are partisans out to get him. But are they suggesting that two years ago, Laxalt already was planning to run for attorney general or had a political career in mind, so the review committee members set out to harm him with a pejorative review?

This is ludicrous on its face. But if they assert such political machinations and attack the integrity of Lewis & Roca lawyers, their theory is contradicted by….Adam Laxalt.

Laxalt told me a year ago that he had not even considered running for attorney general (his wife had just had a baby, after all) when he was “approached” (aren’t they always?) to run:

“A number of different people have approached me to encourage me to run(or at least look at the race) but that is all,” Laxalt told me in an email on Aug. 12, 2013. “I must say that running for Attorney General was definitely not on my radar when this occurred. With a new baby and a growing legal career, I have not had the time to evaluate this very serious public service. Since this is a very important job that I think should not be ceded to Ross Miller, I have not closed the door but nor have I personally opened it. I will decide to explore or shut the door completely hopefully in the next few weeks.”

So the door was not closed or opened at that time.

The review was done a year before that email, so any argument evaporates that the evaluation was a set up. The Associate Evaluation and Compensation Committee thought Laxalt needed a lot of help and suggested termination was a possibility.

What is undeniably true, though, is that some Lewis & Roca lawyers are supporting Miller (the firm's statement said there are firm employees on both sides) and a partner hosted a fundraiser with other firm lawyers last week for the secretary of state. Although it seems absurd any partisanship was involved in the evaluation, one expert who has done many reviews told me, "Any experienced manager and certainly any lawyer with a labor practice, knows better than to personally humiliate someone in a performance review.  If an employee isn't working out either develop a performance improvement plan or fire (him).  The review was unprofessional at best and possibly libelous."

But damaging nonethleless, both internally and now externally. And there appears to have been a plan developed for Laxalt to keep him employed, allow him to pursue a political career if he wanted one and not have what were judged his poor legal skills hurt the firm.

Soon after the pejorative review occurred, Laxalt, who left Lewis & Roca early this year to run, became “Of Counsel” to the firm, which meant two things: He couldn’t become a partner, and he didn’t have to be evaluated. I leave it to you to consider which was more important to him.

Lewis & Roca has twice referred to this as a promotion, once in a letter Laxalt solicited from the firm and once last week when the firm, surely under threat of a suit, tried to put the best face on his tenure.

Many lawyers who understand what the term means realize it is not a “promotion” unless you consider being taken out of day-to-day legal affairs to be such. But no matter.

What is puzzling is that Laxalt knew this evaluation existed and yet asserted in July on "Nevada Newsmakers" that he had “nothing but great success at Lewis & Roca.” While his self-assessment may lead some, including his firm colleagues at the time, to wonder about the disconnect, Laxalt surely believed the evaluation would never come out because that assertion he made clearly is untrue.

The evaluation will not just fade away like some disappearing ink; it is indelible and will resurface when people start paying attention. All Laxalt can do is try to change the subject.


His first effort was faltering and inaccurate:

“The improperly and perhaps illegally leaked document today is not an evaluation that Adam Laxalt has ever seen before, and its authenticity as an official evaluation is clearly in question.  Adam has been in touch with the firm this afternoon and he has been told that the process of authentication is currently underway.  However, this document purporting to be an official evaluation was never given to Adam Laxalt.  We will brief you with more information as soon as we have it."

A few points: He knew the poor evaluation existed because he…was there. In a July 11, 2012, description of the meeting with Laxalt about the review, partner Sean McGuiness detailed that the adverse nature of the evaluation “was not well received” by Laxalt. “We also spoke with Adam about the disconnect between his self-assessment and the actual reviews,” McGuiness wrote.

Second, of course it wasn’t given to him, as it never would be. His conversation last week with Lewis & Roca, I’d guess, was more like: “How the hell did you let this get out? I am going to own that firm unless you put out a statement. Strong letter to follow.”

What followed was predictable:

On Thursday, the day after the disclosure, Laxalt began his “best defense is good offense” and even had the chutzpah to try to fundraise off the damaging disclosures.

We have clearly caught the attention of our opponent and his supporters, and that is why they are attacking me and my credentials.  Their hope is that petty politics will distract the voters from the issues that matter in this campaign.  I’m proud to put my broad experience as an attorney against my opponent’s limited experience, as well as sharing the stark differences in how we will work to defend Nevada from the unprecedented federal overreach coming out of Washington.  

He has broad experience as an attorney? This is certainly not true, either.

As for Miller, he has been a prosecutor and the SOS office deals with legal issues all the time. I would love to see the two debate legal issues that might confront an AG to see who handles it better.

Then the big guns came out later Thursday, and the choreography wasn’t bad, albeit obvious.

At 4:34 PM, the statement from Lewis Roca Rothgerber (the firm has been absorbed into a meganational firm) arrived. As one GOP wag put it: “How do you spell CYA?”

I understand the firm was threatened with a lawsuit, so the statement contained some comments about “highly favorable feedback” that Laxalt had received while it also verified the evaluation and said, “He is a capable and talented attorney who serves his clients well and, as such, we would welcome his return to the firm should he desire to do so in the future.”

No evidence of such was presented, and when I asked for some of this highly favorable feedback, I was told: “The statement is all we have right now.”

You do not need to be a Mensa member to understand why this statement said what it did. The firm could have simply kept silent, but it chose to do its own form of damage control this way. The firm has more than just any liability to worry about; it has to explain to clients and future clients about the security of documents.

At 5:29 PM, the “Laxalt responds to today’s statement from law firm” email arrived, too lengthy to be an actual spontaneous reaction. So clearly Laxalt had the firm’s statement well in advance (did he approve it?), so he could time his response with its release.

My wife and I knew that entering this race would be a challenge. But this is politics. We don’t duck it, and we are stronger than the pettiness that is facing us today. My candidacy, background, and broad experience as an attorney is and will continue to be in sharp contrast to my opponent’s.

And this:

“My career as a JAG officer also included a tour in Iraq where I dealt with some of the broadest legal challenges imaginable, including assisting with the detention and prosecutions of thousands of terrorists. During this tour, I was selected among numerous candidates to serve as the Officer-in-Charge at Head Quarters at Camp Victory.

“Following this assignment I was selected to be a legal advisor and prosecutor at one of our nation’s critical commands in Europe and South West Asia. In addition to these roles, I have served as a federal prosecutor for a U.S. Attorney’s office.


This may all be true. But there is no evidence (at least not yet) that he assisted in “the detention and prosecutions of thousands of terrorists.” Thousands? UPDATE, 11:40 AM: GOP Assemblyman Wesley Duncan says this claim is true. Duncan said on Twitter that thosuands of terrorists "is accurate for work he did at Task Force 134 at camp Victory. I was in same command in Iraq in 08-09."

Maybe he did. But Laxalt also returned to the states, and by his own admission in that statement , had a tough time making the transition. Or as he put it, the new job "came with its challenges. But, I met those challenges head-on, as I have always done, and ended up earning a promotion out of ‘Associate’ rank to ‘Of Counsel’ at the firm."


On Friday came the leak to the media of documents on his military record that showed he was very well thought of but with no specific comments about his lawyering, only that he was talented and in great physical shape.

So he was well thought of in the Navy (based only on what Laxalt has given to the media) when he was in his mid-20s but not so well thought six years later at Lewis & Rocha. That’s what we know.

Besides Adelson, the one person who could help Laxalt is his grandfather. But Tall Paul is too ill and unlike Miller’s father, can’t be raising money and sending out fundraising missives.

The Laxalt name does not resonate the way it once did – although Laxalt the Younger has raised money from Paul’s friends – but his grandfather could have helped blunt some of this. Perhaps.

So that leaves Gondolier Numero Uno. And Laxalt is left with the only way out of his hole: Go after Miller, who has vulnerabilities on vacuuming up political gifts, posting silly stuff to his Twitter feed and reveling in his UFC mania. Miller also has a record as secretary of state he might have to defend.

But one other question may dog Laxalt before he can change the subject, and that is: If he is such a wonderful lawyer now, why won’t he tell us who his current clients are?

The Sands of time are running out.