Kelvin Atkinson, who became the first black LGBTQ state Senate majority leader in the nation this year before criminal charges led to his resignation, reflected on his life and offered an apology Thursday before he was sentenced to 27 months in prison for misusing campaign funds.
“I spent a long time building myself up to the person I am today, and my fall has been quite daunting,” the former senator said during his sentencing hearing.
He must surrender by Oct. 18. Senior U.S. District Judge James Mahan also ordered him to pay a fine of nearly $250,000 and said he must be supervised for three years after his release.
Atkinson, 50, was forced to resign barely one month after the 2019 Legislature convened. He pleaded guilty the following week, on March 11, to a federal wire fraud charge, admitting to misusing some $250,000 in campaign funds.
From 2010 through 2017, according to the charges, Atkinson spent $75,000 in donor money to open a nightclub, $20,000 to lease a Jaguar SUV, at least $100,000 to pay off credit cards and $8,600 to repay a personal loan.
In a tearful speech on the Senate floor March 5, Atkinson said: “Regretfully, it has been discovered that I have used campaign funds for personal use. Thus I will be taking responsibility for that.”
Atkinson’s attorney, Richard Wright, argued that the embezzlement started with good intentions but snowballed.
“Things start, and they may have been benevolent,” Wright said. “He was borrowing or using funds for a Robin Hood-esque intention.”
‘Not a happy day’
Overall, Atkinson confessed to withdrawing more than $1.2 million from his campaign account while reporting less than $765,000 in campaign expenses. Poor record-keeping kept prosecutors from calculating exactly how much was misused.
In court on Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Schiess said handing down a 30-month sentence would send a message to other elected officials.
“This goes to the heart of what we do in this country,” the prosecutor said. “We believe that message will be clear and needs to be clear that you cannot do what he did and harm the people, harm the system.”
Mahan said he considered the number of victims, the amount of money stolen and the breach of public trust when deciding Atkinson’s punishment. He said he gave Atkinson some leeway for promptly taking responsibility and resigning.
“First of all, Mr. Atkinson, this is not a happy day,” Mahan said before imposing the sentence. “Not for me. Not for anyone.”
Though Wright argued that the real victims were the state and electorate, Mahan noted that more than 800 individuals and businesses donated to Atkinson’s campaign under the impression that those funds would be used properly.
Atkinson’s fall could hardly have been more dramatic. Elected to the Assembly in 2002, the Democrat served five terms before winning a Senate seat in 2012, representing part of North Las Vegas and Las Vegas’ Historic Westside.
He entered the national spotlight during his first Senate session in 2013. As state lawmakers weighed a measure to repeal the state’s ban on gay marriage, Atkinson rose on the floor during the debate to announce he was gay for the first time publicly. When a federal appeals court overturned Nevada’s ban in October 2014, Atkinson and his partner became the first same-sex couple to marry in the state.
Wright said Atkinson’s work in Nevada is enough to counter the gravity of his crime.
“He does not have that lavish lifestyle, and he is not greed-driven,” Wright said, adding that he felt Atkinson had a “reservoir of goodwill” in him.
Atkinson was born in Chicago in 1969, to a father who worked on the railroads and a mother who was a union worker in a mill. After his parents divorced, Atkinson moved to California with his father, who eventually became a criminal defense attorney but was murdered by a client.
The loss hit Atkinson hard, and he eventually moved to Las Vegas to live with his grandparents. He worked for Clark County as a management analyst before opening the now-shuttered club The Urban Lounge. It was a popular spot for political fundraisers.
As a condition of his supervision after release, a probation officer will monitor his finances and will have permission to search his home at any time. He will be barred from using or opening a new line of credit, and must use a single checking account to manage all his finances. He also will be required to do community service.
This story has been updated with the correct sentence that Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Schiess requested.
U.S. attorney’s statement
“In the Silver State, virtually all public officials serve with integrity, honesty, and humility. But when a public servant violates the public’s trust, federal prosecutors in my office stand ready to pursue justice,” said Nicholas Trutanich, the U.S. attorney for Nevada. “The defendant admitted using campaign donations to fund a lavish lifestyle, and the Court determined a 27-month term of federal imprisonment was just and appropriate.”