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Note: This story is the culmination of a series of investigative reports over the course of months written with fellow Review-Journal staff writer Lisa Kim Bach.

Jan. 22, 1998

Teachers union director resigns, blames reports

Stephen Confer quits amid controversy from news stories of missing funds in a previous job.

By Steve Friess

Local teachers union Executive Director Stephen Confer resigned Wednesday and blamed his departure on news accounts of his questionable history with an Indiana union.

Sue Strand, president of the Clark County Classroom Teachers Association, announced Confer's exit in a news release and blamed "tabloid news reporting" for his downfall. She vowed a return of the union's focus to protracted contract talks with the Clark County School District, which have stalled while the leadership handled the Confer controversy.

No one from the union would reveal the terms of Confer's departure or the status of the remaining 10 months of his contract. If paid to him, that would total about $100,000 in salary and benefits.

Confer had been on paid administrative leave since news broke last month that he emptied more than $53,000 from the bank account of an Indiana union while in his previous job in Fort Wayne.

Shortly after Confer took the helm of the 9,900-member Clark County union in November 1996, Indiana officials launched an internal investigation that found Confer wrote $45,316.73 in union checks to himself. Documents obtained by the Review-Journal detailed the missing funds as reported to an insurance company by the Indiana union, including $7,803.13 in personal charges on an American Express account.

Confer said last month that he spent the money on a covert investigation of officials in a sister union but that nobody from his former union would acknowledge he had been ordered to do so. He also said he used his retirement savings to reimburse the union and to spare both sides further embarrassment, despite his innocence.

Confer, reached at home Wednesday, said, "I have nothing to say at all." He has made no public comments since Dec. 19 and referred questions to his Las Vegas attorney, James Smith. Smith refused comment and hung up on reporters. He said he was too busy Wednesday to discuss Confer's case.

The four-paragraph news release Wednesday said, "In his resignation letter, Confer noted that the series of negative articles in the Las Vegas Review-Journal would continually shadow his performance of duties as an executive director."

Strand also blamed the media, as she has done repeatedly in the past month, and accused reporters of conspiring with the school district to embarrass the union amid tense labor talks. The first report of Confer's history was published two days after Strand and Confer declared that negotiations were at an impasse and that they were seeking binding arbitration.

"Tabloid news reporting is the way I felt this has happened," Strand explained in an interview Wednesday.

The newspaper "thinks it's newsworthy," she said. "I don't. The only people who this affects are my members. The R-J's goal has been to get (Confer) to resign. Now they've been successful and must be very proud of themselves."

Review-Journal Editor Thomas Mitchell defended the newspaper's coverage and said "these have been factual stories, and no one has contradicted a single word in any of them."

"We just told their 9,900 members that this is what's going on and that there's a potential in there for legal problems," Mitchell said. "There is no such thing as negative or positive stories. There's truthful and untruthful.

"These are truthful. They just didn't like the fact that we told the truth."

One union executive board member, who asked to remain anonymous, said the association hopes to blame the media instead of acknowledging Confer's problems.

"We put that in there to deflect attention, and everyone knows it," one executive board member said. "Inside the association, the real issue has been whether we want someone like (Confer) as our chief representative -- which is what the issue should be."

Strand also said in the release that the members of Nevada's largest public employees union "have confidence in CCCTA's leadership team and know that our association continues to represent, involve and support them."

But that remains somewhat unclear. Several members have complained in recent weeks, as well as on Wednesday, that they have not received answers to their questions about the Confer issue.

"I would hope the president of the association answers hundreds of questions the members have by releasing all the relevant information," said Bob Broniecki, former union president. "There are too many questions out in the schools. We need hard facts and answers quickly."

And another past president, Barbara Belak, said the media's coverage is welcome.

"It's a good thing," Belak said. "If Mr. Confer was indeed involved in stealing money, then that is certainly not the kind of person we wish to see at the helm of the teachers association."

Most members, regardless of their thoughts on Strand's handling of the matter, said their top concern is the effect of the controversy on labor negotiations.

"This came at a real inopportune time, at a time when some people were trying to make us look as bad as they can," said Orr Middle School Special Education Facilitator Paul Feaker. "I question the timing of the whole thing and whatever agendas are out there by people."

Assistant Superintendent Edward Goldman, the district's chief negotiator, said the Confer issue has not affected labor talks. Each side is meeting separately with a federal mediator this week as would be expected, he said.

"The negotiations are not between Mr. Confer and the district; they are between the CCCTA and the district," Goldman said. "I don't see how that has had any impact on negotiations at this time."


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