Candidate’s accuser in assault case goes public
LAS VEGAS (AP) – A woman who says she was assaulted and propositioned by a Republican congressman running for Nevada governor said Wednesday she was threatened, pressured – and even offered money – to drop her allegations and change her story.
Chrissy Mazzeo, 32, a Las Vegas Strip hotel-casino cocktail waitress, said at an hour-long news conference that the money offer came soon after the alleged Oct. 13 incident from a friend who said she had connections to Rep. Jim Gibbons’ gubernatorial campaign.
The friend, Pennie Puhek, told Mazzeo to drop the charges against Gibbons, 61, and said she would be paid if she signed a statement changing her account, according to Mazzeo’s lawyer, prominent Las Vegas attorney Richard Wright.
“There’s money in this, you will get money for signing this,” Wright quoted Puhek as saying on Oct. 16. Mazzeo added that a specific amount wasn’t mentioned but it was clear the payment would be coming from “the Gibbons party.”
Mazzeo said Puhek also stated that her life was in danger and “if you don’t drop this, Chrissy, they will kill you, your baby and your family.”
Gibbons issued a statement saying he did nothing inappropriate and calling the statements by Mazzeo and Wright defamatory and outrageous. He added it was a fabrication to suggest that he or anyone in his campaign “threatened violence or offered money to anyone in an attempt to cover up these allegations.”
Gibbons’ lawyer, Don Campbell, also challenged Mazzeo’s account, calling her an “exceedingly troubled young lady” and alluding to unspecified problems in her background.
Campbell also described Mazzeo’s comments Wednesday as inconsistent with her earlier statements to police, but would not give an example.
“We feel compelled to defend ourselves, to defend our client and we intend to do so in the coming days,” Campbell said following Mazzeo’s news conference.
In a statement, Puhek said she never urged Mazzeo to drop the allegation “for any reason, including money,” and described Mazzeo’s account as “clearly fabricated.”
“I believe she needs to strongly consider seeking professional help,” Puhek said.
Mazzeo accused Gibbons of pushing her up against a wall and propositioning her in a parking garage near a restaurant-bar where they had met earlier in the night. Gibbons, in statements to police and at a news conference with his wife last week, said he walked Mazzeo to the garage, caught her when she tripped and walked away.
Both Mazzeo and Gibbons, a five-term congressman from Reno, told police they had been drinking. Gibbons had been with Rogich and other supporters and Mazzeo had been with Puhek at the bar. Puhek bought drinks for the Gibbons party and the two women then joined the group.
Mazzeo chose not to press charges the next day, shortly after Gibbons was interviewed by police for the first time. She did not recant her story, but told police she did not want to “go up against” a congressman.
Mazzeo, nervous and at times teary, told reporters Wednesday that she called Puhek immediately after calling police after the alleged incident. She said Puhek said “I believe you,” but then urged Mazzeo to take back the accusation because she was dealing with powerful people.
Mazzeo said she dropped the matter because she wanted it to “go away.” She added that Puhek told her she was in touch with Gibbons through a legal secretary who shares office space with Rogich and had been at the restaurant with Gibbons, Rogich and Mazzeo.
Mazzeo also said she had been frustrated by the congressman’s denials, and by the investigation conducted by Las Vegas police.
“I want the truth to come out,” Mazzeo, a single mother, said.
Gibbons, a former combat pilot, had said he behaved like “an officer and a gentleman.” But Mazzeo said Wednesday that Gibbons was “definitely drinking and definitely aggressive” toward her – and “definitely not an officer and a gentleman.”
Wright criticized the statements made by Clark County Sheriff Bill Young describing Mazzeo as “inebriated” the night of the incident, and characterizing the alleged assault as a misdemeanor. Young, who personally informed Gibbons to arrange an interview with police, is a Republican and has endorsed Gibbons in his race against Democratic state Sen. Dina Titus.
Wright said he hoped the Clark County district attorney would pursue an investigation. He said that Rogich, Puhek and others at the restaurant were never interviewed by police, although a dozen officers were called to the scene. Surveillance cameras that Mazzeo believed would have shown what occurred were turned off, according to police.
Police broke the law when they released Mazzeo’s name to the media, Wright said, adding that he had been unable to get copies of police photographs showing bruises and scrapes that Mazzeo says she suffered in the alleged attack.
“There are laws and procedures in place in our state which are supposed to prevent a spectacle a like this from taking place,” Wright said. “If they had worked, we would not have to be here today to answer questions and defend herself. She is not supposed to be in this position.”
Clark County District Attorney David Roger told KLAS-TV, Las Vegas, that he was willing to pursue an investigation provided he had full cooperation from Mazzeo.
Mazzeo said she was harrassed by a private investigator hired by the Gibbons campaign who had tried to meet with her and who misrepresented himself as an attorney.
David Groover, a former Las Vegas Metro police officer with the department’s organized crime unit, acknowledged that he’d contacted Mazzeo and wanted to meet with her before her police statement and 911 tapes were released to the media.
Groover denied misrepresenting himself. He told reporters that the interview was standard procedure in any investigation.
Titus, who had been trailing in the polls in the governor’s race, said following Mazzeo’s news conference that she didn’t want to comment on the matter.
“It’s not appropriate to comment on it. I’m just staying out of it,” said Titus, who on Tuesday had said the allegations reflect poorly on Gibbons’ judgment and could be a key factor in their race.
— Associated Press writer Brendan Riley in Carson City contributed to this report.