A TV ad aired by Republican Adam Laxalt and the National Republican Senatorial Committee accuses Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of putting her “own financial interests over yours” and “becoming a multimillionaire while in office.” But the claims rely on financial disclosure reports that provide only broad ranges of assets and liabilities and show no evidence of wrongdoing.
The ad also implies she has taken gifts as a senator, but annual financial disclosure records show that she has not. The Laxalt campaign referred us to a story that said she accepted $61,000 worth of “donor gifts” as attorney general, but we found the vast majority of those “gifts” were airfare, lodging and meals to attend conferences held by attorneys general organizations.
The Nevada Senate race is one of a few tight races that could determine control of the U.S. Senate. Cortez Masto, the nation’s first Latina senator, is seeking her second term in office, but faces a stiff challenge against Laxalt, a former state attorney general and grandson of former Sen. Paul Laxalt.
In the TV ad titled “Millionaires,” the Laxalt campaign seeks to tie Cortez Masto to two unpopular Democrats — President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — and high inflation. It portrays the Democrats as “liberal career politicians” who put “their own financial interests over yours” to “become millionaires.”
Laxalt campaign ad, “Millionaires,” Oct. 13: Biden. Pelosi. How do liberal career politicians become millionaires? By putting their own financial interests over yours. They don’t care about causing devastating inflation. They can afford it, but we can’t. Catherine Cortez Masto doubled her own net worth, becoming a multimillionaire while in office. I’m Adam Laxalt and as attorney general I refused gifts of any kind. I’ll do the same in the Senate. I approve this message because your senator should help you instead of helping herself.
As we have written, Republican claims about the Democrats “causing devastating inflation” are overblown. It’s true that the American Rescue Plan — a law enacted without any Republican votes in March 2021 — was a contributing factor, but economists cite several other reasons for high inflation, notably the economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
For this story, we will focus on the exaggerated claims about Cortez Masto and her wealth.
When we asked the Laxalt campaign about its claim that Cortez Masto became a “multimillionaire while in office,” it emailed us a link to a Washington Free Beacon story and highlighted this paragraph:
Free Beacon, Sept. 7: And since she was sworn in as senator in 2017, her net worth has skyrocketed. The Nevada Democrat was not a millionaire when she ran for office in 2016, but is now worth as much as $7.5 million, according to her most recent federal financial disclosure, which shows an increase in the value of some of Masto’s investment funds.
The Free Beacon was wrong when it said that Cortez Masto “was not a millionaire when she ran for office in 2016.”
As a candidate in 2016, Cortez Masto filed financial disclosure reports that showed that she and her husband, Paul, had a net worth of roughly between $1.24 million and $2.88 million. (These reports do not include exact amounts, but rather politicians select from ranges of values.)
The Free Beacon relied on USA Today, which wrongly reported in a Feb. 12, 2016, article that Cortez Masto “had a net worth of between $740,000 and $1.88 million” based on a candidate financial disclosure form filed in May 2015. But the May 2015 financial disclosure report actually placed Cortez Masto’s net worth at between $1.24 million and $2.88 million.
It appears that USA Today tallied up publicly traded assets, but did not include nonpublicly traded assets, which included rental property and undeveloped land that were each worth between $250,000 and $500,000. The combined net assets make the couple millionaires — and possibly multimillionaires — before she took office.
Before she took office, Cortez Masto filed two other financial disclosure forms in 2016 — the original form in August 2016 and an amended form in November 2016 — that showed similar ranges. The amended 2016 form filed Nov. 28, 2016, showed Cortez Masto and her husband had a net worth of between $1.25 million and $2.76 million. (Financial disclosure reports are required to be filed annually.)
Free Beacon also said in its article that Cortez Masto’s net worth has “skyrocketed” since she took office, writing that she is “now worth as much as $7.5 million.” The story — which didn’t provide the low end of her net worth, only the high end — is right, but that high figure is misleading.
Cortez Masto’s 2021 financial disclosure report showed total net assets of between $2.1 million and $7.6 million. But the $7.6 million appears to be inflated by the sale of undeveloped land for $283,000 in 2020.
After reviewing the senator’s financial disclosure statements, we noticed that there was a significant jump in reported assets held at one institution: Town & Country Bank. The reported value of savings and checking accounts held at the bank jumped from $500,000 to $1 million in 2019 to between $1 million and $5 million in 2020. (The 2021 report also values the asset at between $1 million and $5 million.)
When we asked the campaign to explain the increase, we were told that the proceeds of the $283,000 land sale in 2020 were deposited at Town & Country.
“The $283,000 was deposited into the Town & Country bank account, but because this pushed the bank account over the $1 million mark, the new bank account range was $1 million to $5 million, adding $4 million to her maximum net worth range,” Cortez Masto spokesperson Josh Marcus-Blank said in an email.
If that bank account is worth closer to $1 million than $5 million, the range of Cortez Masto’s net assets would be between $2.1 million and $3.6 million in 2021 compared with $1.24 million to $2.88 million in 2016. That would mean, contrary to the ad’s claim, Cortez Masto has not “doubled her own net worth” since becoming a senator. (In a financial disclosure report filed in May, Laxalt reported net assets of between $808,090 and $3.1 million in 2021.)
Of course, we don’t know exactly how much the senator and her husband have in their joint bank accounts or where the money comes from. But then again, neither does Laxalt — who implies wrongdoing in the ad without proof.
At the end of the ad, Laxalt — who was the state’s attorney general from 2015 to 2019 — also says that he did not accept gifts as attorney general, and he will refuse to accept any gifts as a senator “because your senator should help you instead of helping herself.”
The implication is that Cortez Masto did accept gifts. But that, too, is misleading.
Senate ethics rules essentially prohibit senators from accepting gifts, and Cortez Masto’s financial disclosure forms show the Democratic senator has not accepted any gifts since taking office in 2017.
But she did accept some gifts as Nevada’s attorney general from 2007 to 2015. For this, the Laxalt campaign referred us again to the Free Beacon story, which said Cortez Masto accepted $61,000 in gifts as attorney general, including “a $750 luxury handbag” and “complimentary tickets to award shows and sporting events worth nearly $4,000.”
We reviewed the annual financial disclosure statements that Cortez Masto and Laxalt filed when they served as attorney general. We found that Laxalt did not report any gifts, but Cortez Masto did receive a $750 purse in 2008 from film producer Firoz Nadiadwala. She also received tickets worth $350 to see “Lion King” in Las Vegas in 2010, and the Recording Industry Association of America spent $850 for her to attend the Latin Grammy Awards in 2011.
But the vast amount of “gifts” she received were airfare, hotel and meals to attend conferences held by such organizations as the Democratic Attorneys General Association, the National Association of Attorneys General and the Conference of Western Attorneys General.
Marcus-Blank told us that Cortez Masto “attended important policy conferences as Attorney General, including meetings with Mexican Attorneys General that were critical for combating cross-border crime. Because of Nevada law, Cortez Masto’s attendance and travel to these conferences were categorized as ‘gifts.'” That is indeed what we found in the records.
In the end, there isn’t much at all to Laxalt’s claim that Cortez Masto has personally profited as a public official.
Sean Christensen contributed to this story.
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