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Friday, February 06, 2004

MEDIA ROUNDUP
THE MERCURY FORGETS TO INFORM ITS READERS: HEIDI WALTERS LAID OFF

Heidi Walters sent me a nice e-mail Monday. (Surprising, too, since I had never contacted her directly—indicating that Las Vegas Mercury editor Geoff Schumacher had in fact sent word of my blog around.) Walters, the onetime CityLife staff writer who moved over to the Mercury to take the news editor position there, thanked me for my praise: Last week, I referred to Walters as one of my favorite alt-weekly writers. OK, I actually said that she was once my favorite, period, but that her decreased output at the Mercury coupled with Weekly writer Stacy J. Willis’ prose had created a shift. Not the most gracious way of letting Walters know of my fandom, but unfortunately, the opportunity for acclaim never presented itself in the four weeks I’d been blogging, while Willis had already come in for commendation twice—and that was sort of the point. (Although, looking back at Walters’ oeuvre, I discover she’s been responsible for a lot more in the past year than I remembered. Sorry, Heidi.)

And now Walters has been laid off from her position as Mercury news editor. As she poignantly told me in that e-mail, the very day she read my kind words, last Friday, was also her last day on the job. But you wouldn’t know it from reading the paper that let her go: this week’s issue of the Mercury has remained strangely silent on the matter. In fact, Walters is still listed on the masthead as news editor.

Ironically, you have to go to Walters’ former employer, rival paper CityLife, to get the story. CityLife editor Matt O’Brien gives it the standard (if muted) notice in the “MediaWatch” column—including, of all things, a comment from Mercury publisher and editor Schumacher that he couldn’t share with his own readers:

We’re always trying new things and looking for new angles. We’re playing catch-up [in the alt-weekly competition], and we need to find our niche in the market.

(And here I thought the Mercury had more or less found its niche: a hipper, slicker and dare I say more engaging version of CityLife and its progressive persona, but with deeper pockets and columnists with better accreditations.)

Just five weeks ago, Schumacher referred to Walters in his “Editor’s Note” column as the Mercury’s “all-around great reporter/writer, consistently delivering refined and sensitive news stories and making other people's writing better.” If the Mercury is in fact “trying new things,” apparently that envisions not making other people’s writing better, and fewer (and/or less) refined and sensitive articles.

I have many regrets in not starting this blog earlier (or, that is, in not knowing that I could start this blog earlier), regrets particularly in letting numerous stories and observations go by. Among those is the missed opportunity for applauding Heidi Walters’ frequently excellent pieces. In a state where “environmentalist” can be a dirty word, Walters’ dispatches on that front have been second to none, frequently mixing hard reporting with a more personalized relationship with the Earth. (And now, with the departure of David Hare from CityLife, who covered the enviro beat Walters left behind, there may be a noticeable absence of this topic from the papers.) In the great tradition of alternative weeklies—one that goes frequently unacknowledged here—Walters has worn her leftism on her sleeve, but has written engagingly, without delivering screeds. Indeed, Walters has had one of the most distinct writing voices in the Valley.

I’m not going to kid myself by thinking that there’s anyone from media outfits outside Las Vegas reading this who are positioned to put Walters’ talents to optimal use. Nonetheless, for any and all interested parties, here’s just a sampling of the best of Walters’ reporting over the last three years:

hot milk?”: The farmland community of Amargosa Valley—including Nevada’s largest dairy—lies downstream from the proposed nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain. Oy. (October 18, 2001.)

Don’t Shoot Us, We’re Just the Questioners”: Amid the post-9/11 layoffs on the Strip, Walters wonders whether the hotel-casinos used the lost weekend as an excuse for downsizing (and gets some flack for even asking). (November 1, 2001.)

Let’s Make a Deal”: Walters’ tribulations as she reconciles her granola-crunchy environmentalism with the unholy quest of buying a new car. (January 10, 2002.)

Stewards of the Land”: An excursion among Nevada organizations who protect the fragile desert environment from the depredations of reckless recreationists and careless sightseers. (March 6, 2003.)

Ingredients of Terror”: Walters exposes the lax security among area chemical plants, amidst national terrorism concerns—as well as the unexplained death of a postal worker on the allegedly secured grounds of Titanium Metals Corp. (April 3, 2003.)

Acts of Patriotism”: Flagstaff, Arizona finds its city council embroiled in a debate over a resolution condemning the USA PATRIOT Act and asserting its citizens’ civil liberties. Walters deconstructs the issue and the players involved. (July 3, 2003.)


WEBLOG GETS ANOTHER WRITE-UP; SLIGHT SWELLING IN HEAD DETECTED

From the February issue of Las Vegas Life:

LASVEGASWEBLOG.BLOGSPOT.COM—These days, you’re nothing in the Internet society without a weblog, those sites hosted by individuals who honestly think there are people in the world so bored that they’d want to read the thoughts and opinions of total strangers. (Then again, given the surge in weblogs on the ‘Net, that community is larger than we thought.) Refreshingly, this blog, launched at the beginning of the year by local resident Jeremy Parker, isn’t just one man’s personal journal or a place that dishes out advice on where to get lucky around town. Rather, Parker provides weekly media critiques that are actually insightful (and unbiased), as well as a well-written feature article that generally ties to a current event. It’s too soon to tell if Parker’s blog will catch on, but we can say with confidence that we like where he’s headed.

Admittedly, I have no idea if this blog has in fact “caught on.” I haven’t (yet) put any sort of counter or traffic monitor on the Weblog (not sure if I can, either), so I’m unsure how much of an audience I’ve gained from these two write-ups. (My best indicator would be e-mail response, which a very rough estimate would indicate 1%-5% of readership, although for all I know, it could represent 100%.) But I’m grateful (extremely!) for the publicity and attention, which is more than I would have expected only a month in.

[By the way, I found a copy of LVL in the library, but didn’t have time to read through it. When I have the time to return there—or can actually find a copy for sale on a newsstand, having tried and failed in three different places—I’ll include it among the publications discussed in this space.]


KUDOS

Richard Abowitz’s profile of the splinter Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and its power struggle in the insular cities of Hilldale and Colorado City, Arizona—a national story, by the way—may be the singularly best feature written on the brouhaha. Ditto Kate Silver’s companion piece, a survey of the townspeople and day-to-day folkways of Colorado City and its crypto-Mormon population. (Only Utah papers have given the subject as much detailed attention, and an outsider can’t be quite sure what influence the mainstream Mormon church has among them.) Polygamy, inbreeding, theocracy, alleged welfare fraud—it’s all here! Yet Abowitz eschews the easy sensationalistic route for a more sober analysis and history of Colorado City, and Silver is definitely in her element deconstructing the ultra-religious way of life. Well done, you two. Easily the best “local”(well, it is 150 miles away) reporting of 2004 so far.

CityLife editor Matt O’Brien is pretty spot-on in chastising the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and its publication American Editor, for its finding that the Las Vegas Sun, of all newspapers, “is a clean paper with high ethical standards.” Nooo, it’s not the Greenspun-owned Sun that uses its pages to carry on petty personal vendettas (cf. the recent salvage operation on Harry Claiborne’s reputation); or to promote family interests, like the two casinos it co-owns; or to shield family interests, such as downplaying the foibles of the Animal Foundation, whose board is chaired by Janie Greenspun Gale. Incredibly, the author of the American Editor article writes, “These things are not known to me.” (Maybe more on this if I can find the article, which is not yet on the ASNE website.)

Last week, at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, City of Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman used his name—and, more importantly, his office title—on invitations to a party promoting his son’s political consulting business. Local press reaction on this apparent ethical breach—using his office to promote a family member’s business—has been hazy (typical for Las Vegas, no?): some suggest the infraction was minor, others contend that no wrong was committed. Fortunately, Sun columnist Jon Ralston has broken from the pack with a clear-eyed, no-nonsense indictment of Mayor Goodman’s unseemly actions. (Granted, Ralston is no stranger to such indictments of Hizzoner.) This mini-scandal should have legs, and hopefully, amidst the relative silence of others, Ralston will provide them.

CityLife contributor Deidre Pike manages to do a better job than the Las Vegas Review-Journal in explaining how the Nevada presidential caucuses will work next week. True, it’s not hard to outclass either of the dailies in much of anything, but there’s something inherently wrong when a weekly with a circulation of 72,000 gives better instructions on a basic function of democracy than a paper with over three times as many readers.

A few weeks ago, some kind of stuff hit some kind of fan when Newsweek ran a tsk-tsk article on Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts’ loan of 21 Monet paintings to the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Arts—for $1 million. Reaction has ranged from mimicking the tut-tutting (elsewhere) to the overly Vegas-defensive (here). CityLife critic Gregory Crosby strikes a level-headed middle-ground take on the imbroglio, pointing out the tangled history that art has had with money over the centuries. (As a character in a first-season episode of “Law and Order” once memorably pointed out, “There is no art without money.”) Oh, and he reviews the show, too.
I do take some issue with his defense of the $15 admission fee, particularly the $12 discounted rate for locals, and his chastising, go-to-Boston-if-you-want-to-see-it-for-less attitude. Twelve dollars is on a par with what you’d pay at full-scale museums in major cities (the Met and MoMA in New York, MoCA in Los Angeles, etc.), with floors and wings and permanent exhibits, while the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Arts consists of three or four rooms. (Admittedly, an audio guide is included in the charge.) It’s fine for the tourists—they come here to spend money, risk money, risk hundreds or more, so what’s another $15?—but Las Vegans of more limited means deserve better, especially if we’re trying to reverse the arts-indifference with which citizens here have been tagged, and not so unjustly.
(Also, Mr. Crosby seems to have left a thought unfinished: “But the non-profit, public museum is at the terminus of the long journey any painting that’s good enough to survive.” ???)
[Additional links regarding l’affaire Monet can be found at Robert Kimberly’s Las Vegas Arts and Culture blog.]

Amidst the ongoing scandal of the Nevada Board of Regents’ breaking open-meetings laws, nobody has yet to take a step back and cover the basic principles behind such statutes. Thanks to the Weekly’s Damon Hodge for doing so.

Joshua Ellis’ cry for diversity and eclecticism in the basics of Las Vegas’ cultural scene—independent bookstores, alternative radio, coffeehouses other than Queequegs (my pet name for a certain java behemoth) that would double as informal social beehives—is a bit familiar, but it does need to be said. My only concern is that Ellis’ call will fall on deaf ears. His readers by and large fall into two camps: his fans, who have heard this from him before, and readily agree; and his detractors, who have also heard this from him before, and will likely dismiss it as so much Ellis-acting-superior-to-us, and wonder why he doesn’t move back to San Francisco if that’s what he wants anyway. (Note to Josh: On this issue, put me among the former camp. But you gotta admit, that’s what a good deal of people are thinking.) Much of the problem is with CityLife itself: it’s encouraged its columnists (Ellis and Saab Lofton, mainly) to be somewhat outrageous lightning rods rather than cooler-headed voices of reason, and the result consists of readers approaching their columns with something less than an open mind. Perhaps it’s time to consider bringing back the rotating-columnist format of “Naked City” to reinvigorate the paper with some freshness.


SPECIAL DARK

[As I struggle to make this site of broad interest, both to the outlander and the Las Vegas local, I realize that these media postings have the most limited appeal to the former. But I do want the Vegas-curious outlanders to take an interest here, too: as a guide to the best in local reporting, as well as for citations of those distinctly Vegas-y articles that act as Baedekers to the milieu with which this city is popularly associated. Hence, this new category. (By the way, does Hershey’s make this product any more?)]

If Moonlite Bunnyranch owner Dennis Hof’s website is any indication, Deidre Pike’s cover story on Hof, the ranch, and brothel life is somewhat well-travelled ground. Still, Pike’s article on Hof’s attempts to mainstream cathouses—legal in rural Nevada, but not in the counties where Las Vegas and Reno are located—is a good read, and a good jumping-off point for anyone further interested in this journalistic genre.


DOTS

Following up the saga of Matthew Cusick, the HIV-positive gymnast fired by Cirque du Soleil last year—now rehired in a yet-to-be-disclosed capacity—CityLife contributor Ryan Slattery writes,

News of Cusick’s termination touched off a firestorm of negative attention directed at Cirque du Soleil.. . .[P]rotests were held outside Cirque shows in San Francisco, Los Angeles and in Orange County...
[Gay-rights activist group] Lambda Legal will continue to put pressure on Cirque du Soleil to change its policies... Plans have already been made to demonstrate outside of shows in Atlanta and New York later this year.


Notice anything missing? There are three Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas; where are the protests here? Why did the firestorm not extend to the city where Cirque du Soleil has its largest audience? (Maybe not at any individual show, but certainly in the aggregate.) Given the broad spectrum of Cirque attendees from across the nation (and around the world), one would think that the Las Vegas shows—Mystere at Treasure Island, O at Bellagio, and Zumanity at New York-New York—would be prime targets for consciousness-raising. Neither Slattery nor David Hare (the recently departed staff writer who followed the story earlier for CityLife) seemed to have asked the question. Indeed, Slattery’s article doesn’t seem to extend beyond re-formatting this press release. Stepping into this apparent breach, I have put in the question to Lambda Legal and hope to get a response shortly.


SOUR BALLS

It’s not just that the Review-Journal’s attempt to explain the Byzantine caucus process came up wanting, as mentioned above. Bizarrely, political reporter Erin Neff compares the importance of Nevada’s caucuses in the nominating system to past general presidential election inclinations. What does one have to with the other?

[Nevada’s U.S. Sen. Harry] Reid agrees there is national significance to the caucuses, pointing to how Nevada has voted in recent years.

The state has typically voted Republican, but in the last three elections went twice for President Clinton and narrowly went to President Bush.

Huh? What does an intra-party nominating process have to do with how a state as a whole voted in past presidential elections? California has the most nominating delegates, but has consistently voted Democratic in the last few presidential elections: does that make their primaries less significant? Please explain.


One of the reasons I’ve tagged the Las Vegas Weekly as “frivolous” stems from my utter disappointment in the publication in 2002, when it basically ignored most of the statewide elections. (Gov. Kenny Guinn’s re-election may have been a foregone conclusion, but that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when the media throw up their collective hands.) The Weekly seems to have picked up the ball since, but two articles in this week’s issue indicate that their reticence in this area may stem from a lack of Politics 101. The first piece, “Flip Flops, Unchanged Stances and Whatever Will Get Me Your Four Electoral Votes” is actually an OK rundown of the major candidates’ stances on Yucca Mountain—except the astute and sharp-eyed among you have already noticed that gaffe in the headline: Nevada now has five electoral votes, with its new Congressional district. All right, force of habit from the last twenty or fifty years or so. But why just the “major candidates”? Don’t Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton rate a mention, too? It’s another self-fulfilling prophecy: marginalize “minor” candidates by leaving them out of the debate, and they become or stay “minor” as a result. (Granted, this has been going on long before the Weekly stepped up to the plate, but they’re guilty of perpetuating it, nonetheless.)
A second article interviews former Hollywood producer, onetime Nevada gubernatorial candidate, and present Libertarian Party presidential hopeful Aaron Russo (Trading Places, The Rose). Here, interviewer Damon Hodge inexplicably places Russo’s statehouse run in 2000, not in 1998. The first two questions read, “What have you been up to since you ran for governor in 2000?” and “Cancer sidelined a planned 2002 run for governor.. . .” No one caught that in two successive questions, Hodge spaced out gubernatorial races two years apart?
[By the way, Weekly editor Scott Dickensheets sent me a pre-emptive e-mail taking the blame for the “four electoral votes” headline, and now I’ll never know whether I would have caught it on my own. So take that, Scott! Your ruse may have backfired.]

In the guise of a feature, the Las Vegas Sun’s Steve Kanigher files a brief for the proposed $100 million, 100+-acre zoo 20 miles from the Strip. Kanigher essentially sets up a straw-man opposition by implying that it is animal-rights activists (which is frequently read out here as “hardcore PETA fanatics”) and animal-rights activists alone who oppose the zoo. (Indeed, I made up my mind that that was what Kanigher was implying even before he went to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) as a source further into the article.) For an idea of moderate opposing viewpoints, read Geoff Schumacher’s Mercury editorial from two weeks ago.

Covering the aforementioned ethics scandal currently revolving around Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, the R-J’s Michael Squires implicitly casts Bob Rose, who filed the complaint with the Nevada Commission on Ethics, as some local crank who files frivolous papers. The crank part is a judgment call, but Rose’s complaints seem to have merit, judging from the one filed against City Councilor Michael McDonald that resulted in publicly sanctioned rebukes, as well as UNLV ethics professor Craig Walton’s implicit endorsement of the current one. Yes, God forbid that someone in Las Vegas be only a little bit obsessed with ethics in government.

Las Vegas Mercury film critic/film editor Anthony Allison comes late to the City of God bandwagon. This week’s “Critic’s Pick”—unsigned, but presumably his bailiwick—highlights the re-release of City of God after its stunning capture of two key Oscar nominations: Best Director (Fernando Meirelles) and Best Adapted Screenplay (along with Best Cinematography and Best Editing nominations). Allison mentions that “City of God played Vegas for two weeks” last year, probably another sly dig at Las Vegas’ failure to appreciate outstanding cinema. Except he’s incorrect: City of God lasted four weeks here in the desert (three at the Village Square plus one little-noticed week at Neonopolis). More to the point, however, is the absence of any prior appreciation for City of God on his own part. In his last days as CityLife’s film editor, Allison ran a toxic review of the film by Jeannette Catsoulis, who described it as “a movie so besotted with its own scummy street cred and ultra-hip visuals it can't brake long enough for us to connect with even one of its desperate protagonists.” Surely if Allison felt so strongly about City of God, he’d have published a contrapuntal review (as he let Catsoulis and Robert Chancey do with Storytelling a year earlier); instead, CityLife readers were waved off the film.

In Weekly food critic Max Jacobson’s search for Atkins-friendly fast-food, he righteously flips the bird to eateries that charge the same amount for a bun-less burger as they do for the standard sandwich:

Next time I’m on a low-carb jag, I’m just going to order the damned thing normally and then throw away the bun myself. I don’t want to reinforce the stupidity of anyone’s marketing department, nor become a meaningless statistic of the fast food industry, either.

I can appreciate the sentiment—I feel the same way when veggie burgers cost more than beef burgers—but has Jacobson given any thought to how wasteful his proposed strategy is, especially if his readers heed his advice? If someone can dig up a copy of the eco-short, “Toast,” send it on over to him.


Whoever came up with “Thursday’s the New Friday” as the headline for Antonio (“Digital Tony”) Llapur’s club column should be shot. That x-is-the-new-y phrasing is sooo 1999, man.

Since I can’t find the cite on the Web, I’m going to assume that the Weekly is responsible for misspelling “Thrilla in Manilla” (the Manila part, that is) in quoting Wesley Clark’s response to boxing announcer Al Bernstein’s endorsement. (Disturbingly, that same Web search found a lot of people making the same misspelling. “Manilla” is accepted as an alternative spelling for Manila paper, although it’s probably a bastardization of the original Manila.)


WHATCHAMACALLITS

This Week’s Grammar Lesson

Michael Squires of the Review-Journal quotes local libertarian activist Steven Miller: “The effect on the going price of land is a function of the way the federal government hordes land in Nevada.” True, the terms “hordes” and “federal government” do have a high correlation in Miller’s mindset, but the proper word is hoards, to gather or accumulate for future use.


Corrections, Clarifications, etc.

Last week’s “Media Roundup” stated that the Greenspun Media Group held interests in the Palms and Green Valley Ranch Station Casinos. In fact, it is another Greenspun-controlled company, GCR Gaming, that controls these interests. A clarification was appended to the posting the following day.


Wednesday, February 04, 2004

THE MIDWEEK POSTING
NEW ENGLAND 32, CAROLINA 29
NFL 2, LAS VEGAS 1


Super Bowl weekend is probably the second busiest time in Las Vegas—after New Year’s—and perhaps the most lucrative. Hundreds of thousands come to the city to legally bet on the game (while millions elsewhere bet illicitly); the high rollers come out to make five- and six- (and sometimes seven-!) figure bets on various aspects of the score: the point spread, over/under, points scored for each half. Some sports books, particularly the Stardust, take the most esoteric of bets: over/under total passing yardage; whether or not a two-point conversion will be made; whether or not there will be overtime. (I’m told that last one proved particularly popular this year.)

I had little to say about the game, having more or less given up my interest in football a few years back. I might watch for the commercials, or with family or friends for the camaraderie, but that was about it. This year, I didn’t even bother. (OK, I slept through it, owing to a cockeyed sleep schedule over the weekend.) Nor do I have any firsthand familiarity with how the Super Bowl plays out in the casinos; I’m not really comfortable among the crowds here, and I also hear tell that on Super Bowl weekends, the playing conditions on various games tighten up, the better to fleece the captive gamblers.

But an interesting side story occurred last week when the National Football League cracked down on the planned Super Bowl parties at various casinos this weekend. Now, these parties are something of a Vegas tradition: for an admission fee, you gain entry into a room or area featuring the game on a big-screen TV with food, drink, and other amenities. And one could argue that it was those amenities, more so than watching the game, that was being paid for. After all, there’s a reason the low-rent casino has a cheap entry fee and provides hot dogs and beer, while the upscale casino, charging in the $100 range, included a full-scale gourmet buffet and plush seating. They show the same game, after all.

But when the Palms casino held private screenings of the Super Bowl in one of its movie theaters, it crossed a line. Here, the attraction wasn’t any amenity so much as the broadcast of the game itself, blown up onto a twenty-foot movie screen. True, there were hot dogs, beer, games and raffles—but at $40 a pop, you knew that something else was driving that price. Little wonder, then, that the NFL asserted its copyright and threatened legal action—citing both the admission fees and a heretofore arcane rule that forbids their broadcasts to be displayed on screens larger than 55 inches diagonal without prior consent or arrangement. (Whether or not this applies to private home screens or just screens in public venues remains unclear.)

Now, the NFL’s acting almost as if it had no idea these admission-only parties have been going on for years. The truth is that they’ve been turning a blind eye, much as they’ve pretended not to notice, let alone promote, the millions, perhaps billions of dollars in illicit football gambling each year—despite the fact that point spreads are part of each week’s broadcast’s football analysis, and can even be found on the NFL’s official website. (I’m told that either the NFL’s Super Bowl website or CBS’ had links to offshore bookmakers prior to the game. Naturally, I am unable to confirm this after the fact. In any case, if you doubt the NFL’s shaky relationship with gambling, recall Vegas oddsmaker Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder‘s longtime association with CBS football coverage through the 1980s.)

So what prompted the NFL to act this year? Was it merely that the Palms (and some other hotel-casinos) crossed the line? Local commentators have a different theory: revenge for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Authority’s ad campaign. Last year, the NFL famously rejected a “Vegas Stories” ad—you know, the one where the Englishwoman gets all hot and bothered in the back of a limo—for airing during the Super Bowl, wanting to distance itself (officially, anyway) from the gambling element that Las Vegas represents, if not embodies. Not only did Las Vegas milk the ensuing controversy for almost as much publicity as the ad itself would have gotten, but this year, the LVCVA launched a new ad campaign targeting the Super Bowl directly. You’ve probably seen it: an aerial view of the Strip, the sound of a cheering stadium crowd, and the words on the screen, “If only it was this exciting...at the game in Houston.” Needless to say, the NFL nixed this ad, too—or it surely would have if the LVCVA even bothered to try, and I don’t think it did. Instead, the LVCVA successfully bought ad space in several major markets among the airtime reserved for the local affiliates before, after, and I think even during the game.

(Left unspoken in the ad was why the game is more exciting in Vegas. We all know that “why,” of course, but the “Vegas Stories” ads never mention gambling directly. We criticize the NFL for hypocrisy, but we’re practically admitting the shame/taboo of gambling ourselves by avoiding direct references.)

Whatever the reason for the NFL crackdown on the casino Super Bowl parties, Las Vegas generally assumed the position of high dudgeon. Well, screw that. Every televised football game includes that “This broadcast is the sole property of the National Football League” line that we’ve come to know so well (and tune out at the same time), and which includes, or at least encompasses, prohibitions on charging admission for private screenings.

But don’t you know? This is Las Vegas. The normal rules don’t apply.


Updates

Binion’s Horseshoe: First, there was the revelation that asbestos was used as an insulant and would delay any renovation or redevelopment of the property. Now comes word of a two-year U.S. Department of Labor investigation into Becky Binion Behnen’s failure to pay out worker health insurance claims—even as the Horseshoe kept deducting health insurance premiums from employees’ paychecks. As much as $2.5 million in claims went unheeded, and now it seems that hundreds of presently unemployed Horseshoe workers remain on the hook for medical expenses that should have been covered in the first place. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “some former nonunion employees, which could number up to 1,000 over the past two years, have been forced to file for bankruptcy protection, have had their credit ratings wrecked and have had to cover their health-care costs themselves despite paying for insurance coverage.” (While the Horseshoe is a “union” property, not every position is unionized. Most prominently, casino dealers are nonunion—as is the case in every casino in Las Vegas.) In a statement last Friday, Behnen apologized for the “inconvenience” and asked for the affected employees “to be patient” while the claims are resolved—presumably under the liabilities assumed by Harrah’s when it bought the property two weeks ago. Meanwhile, the Labor investigation may be both civil and criminal; let’s hope it robs Behnen of her purported eight-figure payday after running the Horseshoe into the ground and now ruining the lives of hundreds of its employees.
(See “Becky Binion Behnen’s Day of Reckoning” for a digest of the Horseshoe closure.)

Harry Claiborne: A day after posting “Las Vegas Takes Care of Its Own,” I looked the story over and realized I left out some important dates. A clarification has been appended to the end of the post.

Twenty-Four Frames Per Second: My movie blog now has a list of the major Oscar nominations (Picture, Directing, Acting, Screenwriting, Animated Feature, Foreign-Language Film) as well as a link to an article on the Vegas odds on some of the nominees. (See how things all come full circle?) Otherwise, haven’t yet seen any films worth writing about (good or bad).


Monday, February 02, 2004

LAS VEGAS TAKES CARE OF ITS OWN


At FBI headquarters in Washington, they called the Las Vegas field office "the black hole, a dumping ground for mediocre agents." All but the most trivial cases at the small branch seemed to go unsolved. Its agents often went through a revolving door into the highly paid ranks of casino security, taking early retirement or even sacrificing pensions to earn lavish salaries from those they might have investigated. One agent looking into Benny Binion’s bombing of Las Vegas attorney William Coulthard ended up working at Binion’s Horseshoe himself. Another had gone to Caesars Palace and taken much of the FBI staff with him, at a time when skimming and the laundering of drug money at the ornate statue-laden casino were at their height.

In the late seventies, the FBI was struggling to regain a measure of self-respect and public trust as the first revelations of historic abuses came seeping out after Hoover’s death in 1972. Even then, Las Vegas was hardly seen as an assignment for agents serious about their job. Since the collapse of Bobby Kennedy’s war on organized crime, the corridors of Justice had echoed with rumors that it was the Strip and its considerable Washington juice that dictated the choice of the Special-Agent-in-Charge, or SAC, in southern Nevada. On the scene, casino insiders knew the routine. "They had a dossier on every new head agent before sundown the day they got to town," said a native Las Vegan, "and they’d been doing that for years."

So there was an unaccustomed sense of surprise and unease in both Nevada and Washington late in 1979 when the FBl’s reform-minded director, a stern, thin-lipped St. Louis judge named William Webster, handpicked his Las Vegas SAC. Despite the widely accepted fiction of a corporate cleansing of Las Vegas by [Howard] Hughes, Webster still referred to the city as "the crossroads of organized crime" exercising a candor increasingly rare in the political dialogue. The judge’s choice was Joseph Yablonsky, a twenty-seven-year veteran of the bureau, twenty-one of them "on the street.". . .

. . .[I]n the first weeks and months—before the conflict broke into the open with shocking, unprecedented subpoenas of the prominent, and rumors of a specially impaneled federal grand jury—the community seemed to embrace Yablonsky like any other important newcomer. [
Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank] Greenspun and others entertained him. Local papers published fulsome, lighthearted articles about the agent they called the "man of many faces" in his undercover career. . . But when he was duly invited to address the usual round of civic clubs, he began to unnerve his audiences by referring, as if it were self-evident, to the continuing power and presence of organized crime in the city and going so far as to give an actual figure—as much as $170 billion—for what the Syndicate was taking from the national economy each year. "Just imagine if taxes were collected on that kind of income," he said to a stunned Rotary Club audience, "how much it might affect each and every one of you." Some among his listeners knew only too well the accuracy or even underestimation of his portrayal. But in a Nevada thoroughly invested in its post-Hughes image, the speeches seemed to many incredible, then dismaying, then infuriating. "It was like a cancer patient who was first assured by some quack that he was cured now being told his malignancy was massive and maybe terminal," a local physician recalled of one of Yablonskys luncheon-meeting bombshells. "The city went through being numb, and then in denial, and eventually blamed Joe for the real diagnosis."

The
Sun and Review-Journal continued for a while to reflect a kind of polite, clichéd indulgence of Yablonsky’s grim picture. As so often in the rise of the city, Las Vegans like everyone else would officially deplore organized crime and criminals in the generality. But to take those forces out of the abstract, to give them a specific identity, to see how much particular men and their pillage of the state were woven into political and civil society, was unallowable. As if calling out the Syndicate were not enough, Yablonsky went still further to blame its scourge on Nevada’s own hireling politicians, and on the deity of money the city worshipped so reverently. "Without the compromise and corruption of public officials, many of the activities of organized crime would be frustrated," he said in stating the obvious, which for many in the city was outrageous. "So long as Las Vegas’s vaults are filled with ready cash," he said in equal heresy, "the city will be a magnet for gangsters and weak politicians."

The Money and the Power, Sally Denton and Roger Morris



Las Vegas has a love-hate relationship with its past. We know that part of our mystique, part of our attraction, is our sordid history, the control of Las Vegas by the Mob that extended well into the 1980s. At the same time, we hate being reminded that Las Vegas’s civic founders, icons who are still revered, were part and parcel of that whole criminal enterprise. Particularly because many of their legatees still influence the city.

When The Money and the Power was first published almost three years ago, it was met with a stinging rebuke by the Las Vegas Sun. Surely the book’s unflattering portrait of Sun founder Hank Greenspun is what exercised the paper, edited by one Greenspun son and under the umbrella of a media company chaired by another. But it was not to that aspect of the book that the Sun responded—that would have come across as a petty family vendetta. Instead, the Sun yielded a page and a half (of the three pages it devotes each Sunday to in-depth news coverage) to attacking the veracity of other sections of the book, particularly those dealing with FBI SAC Joseph Yablonsky. Yablonsky had been a personal bête noire of Hank Greenspun’s for much of his three-year tenure in Las Vegas, due to his relentless pursuit of corruption in the old-boy Las Vegas network, of which Greenspun was an intrinsic part. The Las Vegas Review-Journal was, by contrast, largely mute on the subject—political columnist John L. Smith expressed some favorable words—indicating that the picture The Money and the Power painted of Las Vegas was hardly skewed, and that the Sun was acting more out of personal grievance than a detached editorial difference.


Harry Claiborne died two weeks ago. To the rest of the world, it was an occasion to mark the passing of one of the few federal officials to be impeached in American history, one of only seven to be so removed from office. Claiborne had been convicted in federal court of income tax evasion—failing to report $107,000 over two years—and sentenced to two years in prison, but had refused to give up the bench or his judicial salary. (You’d think that would be automatic, wouldn’t you?) It was this intransigence that forced the impeachment.

In Nevada, it was an occasion to mark the passing of one of the city’s movers and shakers, part of that aforementioned old-boy Las Vegas network. Claiborne served as deputy district attorney for Clark County from 1946-48, and, briefly, as a member of the state assembly in the 1950s, but for most of his life he was a criminal defense attorney. Many of his clients would be described by local commentators with some sort of euphemism—”colorful,” ”of a certain repute,” “with a past”—but let’s call a spade a spade: many of his clients were mobsters or mob-connected. (His Associated Press obituary counts Benjamin (“Bugsy”) Siegel as a client. Siegel’s residence in Las Vegas more or less coincides with Claiborne’s tenure in the D.A.’s office, and this apparent discrepancy is not explained.) After his conviction and impeachment, he was barred from practicing law, but as Steven Reed of the Houston Chronicle put it, “Nevada's old-boy network then intervened to rescue one of its own.” The Nevada Supreme Court voted unanimously to reinstate Claiborne’s license in state court. His first subsequent court appearance was to defend Benny Binion’s grandson and two Binion’s Horseshoe security guards, accused of beating two blackjack card-counters and threatening them with death.

That was no coincidence. Claiborne was a close friend of Benny Binion’s and the Horseshoe’s lawyer for much of the time prior to this judgeship. More significantly, Claiborne maintained this close friendship even while on the bench. When Joseph Yablonsky first came to Las Vegas, he was dumbstruck at how overtly and with impunity the town’s mobsters operated. And now he saw a federal judge palling around with a mob-connected, corrupt casino operator with more than a few murders and suspected murders under his belt. This is surely what put Claiborne in Yablonsky’s sights.


When Benny Binion came to Las Vegas, he had already served time for murder in Texas, although he also claimed to have received a subsequent pardon from the governor. (No record of such a pardon could be found.) At his Las Vegas licensing hearing, he confessed to two murders:

One victim was a numbers rival of Binion’s named Ben Freiden. Binion admitted the killing but claimed self-defense. He proceeded to regale them with a cowboy-style tale: “Shot him three times in the heart . . . a bad man, a very bad man.” As for the other killing: “Yeah, but he was just a nigger I caught stealing some whiskey.” (The Money and the Power)

Binion had also been tied to a number of other murders, including the 1972 bombing of William Coulthard. Coulthard was a former FBI agent who married into a local casino family and thereby wound up Binion’s own landlord at the Horseshoe.

Shortly before his Cadillac exploded in the Bank of Nevada parking garage in July 1972...Coulthard had negotiated the sale of the property to one of Binion’s competitors, according to FBI reports... Though many suspected that Binion was involved, and the Horseshoe got a new hundred-year lease at low rent, Sheriff Ralph Lamb, to whom Binion had made “loans” that were never repaid, refused to bring charges against the bombing suspects. The FBI concluded that Binion was responsible for the murder, but had no jurisdiction in this local homicide. Federal agents pursuing the case would later say they had never seen such juice. Coulthard’s assassination was still officially unsolved at the end of the century, “though everyone in town knows who did it,” as one local lawyer said. The bomb itself—a “trimble trigger with a guitar pic”—was traced to a Las Vegas hit man whose “trademark” that was, according to one of the chief detectives on the case. (The Money and the Power)

Binion was also known to make payoffs to any and all politicians, and judges, with whom he would ever need influence. In the 1950s, he pled guilty to tax evasion in Texas and reportedly tried to bribe the sentencing judge with $100,000. (The ruse failed and he served 3 1/2 years at Leavenworth.) As Binion himself told the Houston Chronicle in 1989, he once served as go-between for an unnamed Las Vegas convict and his sentencing judge, U.S. District Judge Roger Foley, Sr. A courier brought $600,000 on the convict’s behalf to Binion to be given to Judge Foley in return for a sentencing reduction; as Binion tells it, Foley reduced the sentence but sent back the money. Binion also bragged to the Chronicle that he brokered Harry Claiborne’s federal judgeship with President Carter in return for delivering a Senator’s vote in favor of the Panama Canal Zone Treaty.

(Binion refused to say whose vote he bought, but most agree it was probably that of Nevada’s own Howard Cannon, who would officially recommend Claiborne to the bench. Denton and Morris, in The Money and the Power, pass along an alternate theory from confidential sources that Claiborne’s elevation to the bench was a long-delayed payback from Cannon for his help in fixing the 1964 Senate election that Cannon barely won over then-challenger (later Senate colleague) Paul Laxalt. That election was marred by charges of voting-machine irregularities in Las Vegas’ predominantly African-American Westside neighborhood.)


It’s not clear whether Binion’s Panama Canal story was then known to Yablonsky, but Claiborne’s relationship with Binion should have been enough to arouse suspicion. Yablonsky’s conception of Las Vegas as a hornet’s nest of corruption was only borne out by his sting operations that netted two state senators and two Clark County commissioners on bribery charges; all four had previously been well thought of, and one of the state senators, Floyd Lamb, was considered second only to the governor in state political power (and sometimes, not even second).

When Yablonsky began to investigate Claiborne, Hank Greenspun set his editorial and political machine into gear, what the Sun’s now-defunct editorial rival the Valley Times called a “Get Yablonsky” campaign. Greenspun, Binion and Claiborne had all known each other virtually from the beginning of Las Vegas’ post-war era. To hear it from Greenspun, Yablonsky had an agenda to take out Claiborne from Day One; Yablonsky contended that it was an allegation of bribe-receiving from Nevada brothel owner Joe Conforte that launched the inquiry. The truth is probably closer to neither; the first is too absurd, the second too convenient. (Admittedly, Yablonsky has a history of fabrication and overreaching. In 1982, he used his investigatory powers as an attempt to intervene in the Nevada attorney general’s race, and initially lied to the FBI director about his activities.) Nevertheless, the investigation also turned up $107,000 received as belated legal fees in 1979 and 1980 that he failed to report on his income tax returns that year. (That figure translates to close to $300,000 in today’s dollars.)

Claiborne’s first trial, on the bribery and tax evasion charges, ended in a hung jury, as many jurors found Conforte’s testimony unreliable. For the second trial, prosecutors dropped the bribery charges, and Claiborne was convicted on two counts of tax evasion (one for each false tax return). Unwilling to resign, the U.S. House of Representatives passed four Articles of Impeachment: two for each of the tax evasion charges, one for the criminal conviction (that “by conviction alone he is guilty of having committed high crimes”), and one for having “betrayed the trust of the people of the United States and reduced confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, thereby bringing disrepute on the Federal courts and the administration of justice by the courts." The Senate convicted him in an 87-10 vote, well beyond the required two-thirds.

Hank Greenspun insisted that his friend was railroaded. He claimed to be in possession of hundreds of “secret government documents” that “prove beyond question that Harry Claiborne was a victim of a government frame-up from the U.S. Attorney General down to the lowest echelon of law enforcement, a former FBI agent-in-charge of the Nevada office, Joe Yablonsky, by name.” Justice Department officials dismissed his contentions, and Greenspun never released his smoking-gun documents, which may have been as real as Joseph McCarthy’s famed list of 205 (or 57 or 81) Communists working in the State (or Defense) Department. Greenspun contended that the FBI was motivated by Claiborne’s rulings from the bench against their probes; without specifics, it’s difficult to accurately determine whether Claiborne was the pillar of civil liberties as depicted by Greenspun, or whether he used his position to enable his Mob cronies and disable investigations against them, as the FBI may have suspected.

The Senate heard these allegations and agreed that they merited scrutiny, but added, in the words of then-Sen. Al Gore, “Remedial measures, however, will in no way abrogate the finding that Claiborne has engaged in impeachable conduct.” So Greenspun’s insistence that Yablonsky paid Conforte to set up Claiborne on the bribery charges, that the prosecutors suborned perjured testimony from Conforte—they mean nothing, as those were not the charges that ultimately led to his conviction, impeachment and removal from the bench.


Twenty years later, the Sun still can’t give up the ghost. No less than five separate editorial columns have been devoted to rescuing Harry Claiborne’s reputation and trashing Joseph Yablonsky’s. Sun editor and scion Brian Greenspun went full tilt, referring to the federal government’s decision that Claiborne “stood in the way of its desire to run roughshod over the rights of certain Nevadans...collaborat[ing] to subvert every Amendment in the Bill of Rights just because they could.” (Really? Were guns confiscated? Soldiers forcibly quartered in Las Vegans’ houses?)

Without a trace of self-consciousness, Brian Greenspun remembers Claiborne this way: “Just like you couldn't say gambling without saying Horseshoe and you couldn't say Horseshoe without saying Binion so, too, could the name Claiborne not be intertwined with all three.” It’s in a similar vein that Sun columnist Jeff German also recalls Claiborne: “[H]e refused to give up friendships with many of the colorful old-time Las Vegans he used to represent as the city's premier criminal defense attorney—people like casino owner Benny Binion, who once pleaded no contest to killing a man in Texas.”

But that’s no reason to think ill of Claiborne’s character or probity, you see.

Las Vegas takes care of its own.


[Clarification: Looking over this piece again, I realize I never supplied dates for several key events: Claiborne's conviction, impeachment, etc. What an idiot. Claiborne was named to the bench in 1979. A federal grand jury probe into Claiborne arising from Yablonsky's investigation began in 1982. Claiborne was convicted in court in 1984, and impeached and convicted by Congress in 1986. He served 17 months before being released in 1987, shortly after which his state license was restored by the Nevada Supreme Court.]


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