WILD WEST

01.24.13

The Assemblyman Has a Gun: The Steven Brooks Saga

Nevada’s political scene has been rocked by the odd story of a Democratic lawmaker, the party leader he allegedly threatened, and a shoebox with a revolver in it. Jon Ralston explains.

Even for Nevadans, who have in recent years seen a governor accused of assaulting a cocktail waitress and a senator acknowledge a career-ending affair with his best friend’s wife, the latest spectacle is still riveting.

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Nevada Assemblyman Steven Brooks (center) and others take the oath of office at the Legislature in Carson City in February 2011. (Cathleen Allison/AP, Cathleen Allison)

The slow, public hara-kiri of one Steven Brooks has unprecedented elements—and that’s saying something for Nevada. The story of the Democratic assemblyman, arrested and accused of threats to a Democratic speaker after being found with a .357 revolver and 41 rounds in a shoebox in his trunk, has transfixed a state where politics inhabit a spectrum from weird to outrageous.

The strange case of Brooks, a second-term lawmaker, exploded into the state’s consciousness this weekend with reports he had been arrested after another legislator tipped off Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick. State Sen. Kelvin Atkinson later told police he concluded Brooks wanted to “do in” the speaker after he received a phone call from Brooks’s former employer, Las Vegas City Councilman Ricki Barlow. (Nevada politics is a small, incestuous world.)

Brooks is a backbencher in Nevada’s lower house, but he had delusions of grandeur, hoping to chair its powerful money committee. He was part of a cabal that tried to prevent Kirkpatrick from becoming speaker, with legislators saying he hoped to get himself or fellow sophomore Lucy Flores elected speaker. But when you try to oust the queen, you better be successful, lest she decides to relegate you to oblivion.

Even after that attempt to block Kirkpatrick failed, in November, Brooks continued to try to garner votes during the last few weeks to oust her, telling some people, “Her first day as speaker will be her last.” Several lawmakers told the media his behavior had grown increasingly erratic.

According to Atkinson and others, his rhetoric then escalated to the point that set in motion a thoroughly bizarre chain of events Saturday, now outlined in a Declaration of Arrest.

Police were called by Kirkpatrick, whom they found to be “visibly upset” and worried that Brooks was driving around, armed and looking to harm her. Atkinson later told officers he had talked to an “unknown person” (Atkinson confirmed to me that the person was Barlow) who had informed him of the danger to Kirkpatrick. Barlow was strangely evasive with the police, refusing to confirm he was the person who called Atkinson, yet he obviously was.

(On Sunday, Barlow posted on Twitter that he had “no involvement whatsoever” in the Brooks arrest.)

Police finally caught up with Brooks—who had himself called law enforcement reporting that he did not feel safe, apparently talking about an altercation with gang members, Atkinson told me. At a traffic stop, Brooks yelled at the officers that he was an assemblyman and they did not have permission to search his vehicle, according to police records. The officer explained to the assemblyman that they were doing an inventory of the car’s property, as is standard procedure. When police found the gun and the ammunition in his trunk, Brooks told them that he was at an National Rifle Association event for legislators that day. It turns out he did not attend that seminar—no, you cannot make this stuff up.

Police arrested Brooks under a little-known Nevada law that prohibits threats, direct or indirect, against a public officer. So even though he had never confronted Kirkpatrick with a threat or his weapon, Brooks was taken into custody.

Brooks yelled at the officers that he was an assemblyman and they did not have permission to search his vehicle.

As if the story were not “only in Nevada” enough already, consider what happened next: Brooks was released on $100,000 bail late Sunday, declared his innocence, and retained a publicist, who informed the media Brooks would be having a news conference Tuesday morning at 10 in his capitol office. The next day, with about a dozen reporters lurking in the Legislative Building, Brooks was a no-show at his own news conference.

His lawyer told the media his client had been hospitalized with a digestive disorder, not the more common political malady of cold feet. Brooks was out of the hospital late Tuesday and on his way back to Carson City, where he was supposed to be at a presession budget briefing. Meanwhile, the Assembly majority leader said he might be packing; legislative police told me they had never seen anything like this situation.

For lawmakers, too, this is virgin territory. There was chatter among them about expulsion proceedings before the ink was dry on the booking documents over the weekend. But that takes two thirds of the 42-member Assembly, where Democrats dominate, 27–15. And it has never happened before.

This is quite the conundrum for lawmakers, many of whom are unsettled by what they have heard and read about Brooks, but also wonder if they can expel someone who has not been convicted of a crime. Kirkpatrick told the authorities that Atkinson told her via text “no one should feel safe around Brooks” and that he “would find a way to keep him out of the building.”

That appears fruitless. According to reporters in the capital, Brooks made a brief appearance at the Legislative Building on Wednesday, wearing a hoodie and sunglasses, before leaving after a few minutes. But he is expected to return for the beginning of the session Feb. 4.

I’m sure his colleagues, especially Kirkpatrick and Atkinson, can’t wait.