Nevada Newsmakers

News - August 21, 2023 - by Ray Hagar

Local government bodies across the nation have increasingly faced vocal and aggressive opposition from right-wing groups since the 2020 election, according to published reports.

That unrest and ire has made its way to Washoe County, making the issue of threats and violence against public officials all too real for Chris Hicks, the Washoe County District Attorney.

Hicks' increased awareness comes as the Washoe County Commission has been facing "paid and organized" disruptors at its public meetings, said Commission Chair Alexis Hill. They want to cause chaos and put fear into commissioners, Hill added.

"We're seeing kind of an uptick in those kind of threats," Hicks said recently on Nevada Newsmakers. "So, yes, I have an overall concern for public officials."

Hicks knows first-hand about threats. A Sun Valley man was recently sentenced to five years in prison for making graphic threats on a podcast against Hicks and Washoe County Sheriff Darin Balaam.

Nicholas Vietti, on his podcast "Battle Born Marine," used explicit language, saying he would murder Hicks and sell his wife into sexual slavery with a drug cartel, according to court records.

He was charged with two counts of intimidating a public officer, Hicks said.

Hicks told host Sam Shad that the threats against him and his family were "alarming and scary."

In a victim-impact statement to the court, Hicks said the sexual violence threats against his wife were so horrifying that they made him question his career choice of more than two decades.

"I do worry about individuals who have radical views or who are fixated on public officials, maybe frankly, because of information that's out there that's not even accurate," he said.

Vietti, who was sentenced in June, had ill feelings toward Balaam and Hicks since 2015, blaming them for the results of a child-support case, according to reports.

"The individual fixated on me and Sheriff Balaam ... if you walked down the path that got him there, it would make little sense," he said.

Hicks, in his role as district attorney, is now dealing with another case about attacks on public officials.

Robert Beadles, a member of the Washoe County Republican Central Committee and a major donor to various conservative candidates and causes, filed a lawsuit in state court to remove the county's registrar of voters, county manager and chairwoman of the Washoe Commission.

Beadles, a reportedly wealthy transplant from California, also wants the court to address his election grievances that include voter registration lists, vote counting and signature verification, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Hicks' office is defending the county officials.

The harassment and/or legal action against the Washoe officials is part of a ongoing national issue, according to various reports.

Local officials in 44 counties in 15 states have faced efforts to change rules on voting since the 2020 election, according to Reuters news service.

All of them were led by Trump loyalists or Republican Party activists driven by false voter-fraud theories, Reuters reported.

Washoe's former registrar resigned in June after facing harassment over recent elections. Reuters reported that 10 of the top election officials in Nevada's 17 counties have resigned, retired or not sought re-election since the 2020 election, called "rigged" by former President Donald Trump.

Hicks said he was limited in what he could say about the lawsuit that Beadles brought against the county officials, adding, "We'll represent them diligently and zealously, especially when we don't we think it is a lawsuit that is righteous in any way."

Hicks discounted claims of election fraud in Washoe County.

"You know, I have not seen anything that would suggest to me there was fraud," he said. "I believe no election system is perfect. I think the county is doing a good job of self-examination to make sure that they're always improving. But I have not seen anything that would suggest there was mass fraud."

He also dismissed the call by some activists to return to paper ballots.

However, one Nevada county, Nye County, saw its commissioners OK a return to paper ballots in 2022. The rural county has less than 35,000 voters.

"I think that's ripe for error and it's taking a step back," Hicks said about paper ballots. "I think we have innovative ways to move forward. I don't know what the future looks like for elections, but it sure seems to me that technology should be able to present some ways that you could do voter identification and voting digitally."

Hicks is open to consider a system of voter identification through photos, adding, "But overall, we want an efficient and fair process. That's what everybody wants. And I think that that's what we're doing in Washoe County."

MARIJUANA LOUNGES: Hicks had little problem with Washoe commissioners denying the opening of legal marijuana lounges in the county, even though the sale of medical and recreational marijuana is legal in Washoe.

Hicks shares commissioners' concerns about people driving after consuming marijuana in the lounges. No studies have yet been published about any possible increase of DUI arrests because of marijuana, Hicks said.

However, there have been several DUI arrests where people have tested positive for both alcohol and cannabis consumption, Hicks said.

"We are seeing a lot of combinations of alcohol and marijuana on board with people getting DUIs or getting in wrecks and hurting somebody," he said. "And, you know, using common sense, you can draw a correlation between the two."

Shad asked what was the difference with people leaving a marijuana lounge after ingesting cannabis and people leaving a bar after drinking alcohol.

"I'm not saying we should close all the bars, but let's be realistic: If there weren't bars, there would be less DUIs," Hicks said.