Nevada Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson resigns amid federal charges

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Kelvin Atkinson
Former Nevada State Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson

Nevada Senate Democratic Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson unexpectedly announced his resignation on Tuesday during a tearful address to colleagues from the Senate floor. In his speech he said he plans to plead guilty to federal charges of misappropriating campaign funds for personal use.

Kelvin Atkinson: “I’m embarrassed, I’m ashamed”

In a speech that included several pauses to allow him to wipe tears from his eyes, Atkinson announced his resignation following a previously undisclosed federal investigation into his campaign finances.

“As I rise in this body for what will be my final time,” he said, “it is with great sadness I am announcing my resignation from the state Senate and this legislative body. Due to mistakes I have made I will be vacating my seat immediately.

“Regretfully it has been discovered that I have used campaign funds for personal use. Thus I will be taking full responsibility for that, and will be pleading for those actions when the time comes.”

He added later, “I’m embarrassed, I’m ashamed and I’m truly, truly sorry. I pray for your forgiveness.”

Atkinson’s attorney, Richard Wright, confirmed yesterday that he expects his client will soon plead guilty to a federal wire fraud charge. Wright said the charges will likely be filed on Monday.

According to reporting in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, campaign committees associated with Atkinson have raised over $2 million since 2009, and as of January 2019 had spent $1.25 million. Atkinson’s individual campaign committee reported $450,000 cash in hand in its latest disclosure statement.

The actual charges against Atkinson have yet to be filed, however. Currently there are no pubic records detailing any official allegations made against Atkinson.

Nicole Cannizzaro new Majority Leader

Within hours of Atkinson’s resignation, the Senate Democratic Caucus announced that Nicole Cannizzaro had been elected as the new Majority Leader.

Cannizzaro is now the first ever woman to hold the position of Majority Leader in Nevada. In December, the Silver State became the first in the nation to have a majority female state legislature.

“Senator Cannizzaro is a revered member of the Nevada State Senate and our caucus is united behind her,” her colleague Senator Joyce Woodhouse said during the floor session on Wednesday. “There is no one better to lead us.”

According to Cannizzaro, she did not know about the federal investigation into Atkinson until the night before his resignation.

Downfall of an LGBTQ pioneer

Kelvin Atkinson entered the Nevada Legislature in 2002 when he was elected to the Assembly to represent a district in North Las Vegas. He served there for ten years, before being elected to the Senate in 2012.

In April 2013, as a newly-elected State Senator, Atkinson made national headlines during a debate on the state’s gay marriage ban.

Atkinson used the moment to declare his sexual orientation publicly for the first time. “I’m black. I’m gay. I know this is the first time many of you have heard me say that I am a black, gay male.”

Reflecting on that moment in an interview earlier this year, Atkinson said, “I didn’t anticipate outing myself that day. I think for a large part, a lot of people knew me and know that I was, but there was a large part that didn’t. I never felt I needed to make an announcement about it. But for some reason, that day I felt like it needed to be done.”

Following Atkinson’s impassioned speech, the Nevada Senate voted to repeal the ban, but the bill did not make it into law. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the prohibition in 2014, however. Atkinson and his partner became the first same-sex couple to marry in Nevada hours after the court’s decision was made public.

In November 2018, following the midterm elections, Atkinson became the first African-American LGBTQ State Senate Majority Leader in American history.

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