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LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Just weeks before Nevada's Legislature is set to convene, an only-in-Las-Vegas series of events, including a lawmaker's alleged death threat against the speaker of the state Assembly, is offering a distracting sideshow.
The chaos began when Democratic Assemblyman Steven Brooks was arrested this month on accusations of threatening incoming Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, also a Democrat. Kirkpatrick had recently passed Brooks over for the chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, in the latest in a series of political disputes between the two, according to an attorney for Brooks.
After he was released from jail on bail last Sunday, Brooks called a news conference on Tuesday and then failed to show up. His attorney, Mitchell Posin, said the lawmaker had been hospitalized with intestinal bleeding.
Then, on Friday, Brooks gave an interview to the Las Vegas Review-Journal in which he proclaimed his innocence. He asked a reporter to take photos of him shirtless, with his arms outstretched, to document his bruises, and one of these appeared alongside the story.
Later the same day, police were called to a domestic disturbance involving Brooks, who was taken to a hospital for a medical evaluation, according to authorities.
Despite the kerfuffle, Brooks told the Review-Journal he would take his seat in the Legislature on February 4 - raising questions about just how the state should conduct business in such circumstances.
"It's become a multi-ringed circus," said Guy Rocha, historian and former state archivist. "We've never been confronted with the dynamics we're seeing right now."
Showy and sparkling, Las Vegas is not exactly known for its restraint - gamblers, bachelor parties and conventioneers flock to Sin City for a reason. Nevada has seen its share of political scandal, including U.S. Senator John Ensign's 2011 resignation following a sex scandal involving a former aide and four Clark County Commissioners going to prison for taking bribes from a strip club owner.
But even here, the Brooks story has caused a commotion.
If the 40-year-old second-term lawmaker does not resign, the Assembly may have to decide whether to take a vote to expel Brooks, who has been charged with but not tried or convicted of a felony.
Expelling Brooks, who police said was in possession of a .357 Smith & Wesson and 41 rounds of ammunition when arrested, would require a two-thirds vote of the state Assembly. It has never before been done.
While it may be a first in Nevada, 23 legislatures have expelled sitting members in the past 100 years, said Brenda Erickson, program principal at the Legislative Management Program of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Last year, Illinois voted to expel a member of the state Assembly, Derrick Smith, after he was indicted on federal bribery charges.
Las Vegas police learned of the alleged threat against the assembly speaker through Democratic state Senator Kelvin Atkinson, who told them last Saturday that Brooks had expressed a desire to "do in" Kirkpatrick, according to an arrest report.
Officers found Brooks driving around last Saturday with the gun, which was registered to another person. Brooks told police he had the gun because he had been invited to a National Rifle Association event at which lawmakers could shoot guns and learn about them. Police indicated in the arrest report that legislative staff said Brooks had not gone to the event. He was arrested and posted bail the next day, according to the police and local media.
Prosecution will be handled by the state attorney general, a Democrat, and Brooks is due in court on Monday over the alleged threat. Neither he, Kirkpatrick, nor legislative staff returned calls seeking comment.
But in the Review-Journal story in which he posed shirtless, Brooks he said it was he, not Kirkpatrick, who was in danger, and that he had an armed guard.
"No one is going to touch me again, I'm safe," Brooks told the reporter.
On Friday, his former boss, Las Vegas City Councilman Ricki Barlow, released a statement through an attorney saying that Atkinson sent him an email disclaiming the version of events from the police arrest report and accusing the North Las Vegas Police of "misinformation."
Atkinson could not immediately be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, another Democratic Las Vegas-area legislator, Assemblyman William Horne, told local media he was afraid for his safety, and was considering arming himself while attending the Legislature.
"I've never seen anything like this," said Jon Ralston, a columnist and TV host who has been covering Nevada politics for more than 25 years - and who said he has received text messages in the last week from Brooks at 1:41 a.m.
"One thing is for sure," he added. "We're closer to the beginning of this than the end."
Editing By Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh