What could be the motivations of crack investigative reporter Brian Ross? Why would he bash the gambling-industrial complex on Prime Time Live last Wednesday? Is he still mad that he lost that Las Vegas trial a few years back?
The hometown jury found that Ross, his producer Ira Silverman and NBC News had libeled singer Wayne Newton in a story about his relationship with alleged mob associate Guido Penosi. Newton said he barely knew Penosi, but once called him in desperation seeking help in stopping someone who was making threats against Newton's child. The multi-million dollar verdict was later overturned by a higher court.
Expensive libel action is increasingly used to scare off the news media. In 1983, Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) sued the McClatchy newspaper chain after the Sacramento Bee printed articles critical of the curious financing of Laxalt's Ormbsy House Hotel-Casino. The real purpose of the action was to serve notice to the national media not to run stories which might embarrass the Ronald Reagan re-election machine. It worked. Only the Miami Herald, Mother Jones and the Village Voice followed the Bee and printed negative reports about organized crime and Reagan associates in 1984.
Just a week before the election, NBC News killed a sensational story about Tony Spilotro and Las Vegas mob activities. (For details, see the DeNiro-Pesci-Scorsese film "Casino.") Las Vegas gambling mogul Steve Wynn is currently suing Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith over a book which fails to portray Wynn in the suckup manner to which he has become accustomed. Incredibly, the suit was filed in some Kentucky backwater.
Slot machine makers International Game Technology and Bally publicly threatened libel action as pre-emptive strikes against what they knew would be a negative hit last Wednesday. ABC recently backed down against tobacco industry legal threats, so it was worth a try.
The gamblers spun the Prime Time Live report as an attempt to keep Nevada Gaming Control Board Chairman Bill Bible off President Clinton's national gambling study commission. Perhaps they're right. Maybe the fire-and-brimstone anti-gambling crusaders are just plain incensed that Nevada vice is regulated by someone named Bible.
Certainly, Disney-owned ABC could use some new favor among moralistic viewers. The merchants of Mickey Mouse now also sell NYPD Blue which showed (gasp) Gail O'Grady's breast and (aargh) Dennis Franz's butt in prime time. Everybody knows that if the Good Lord had meant people to prance around naked, we would've been born that way.
Federal review or not, the megagaming companies will come out just fine. If the nationwide proliferation of gambling gets stopped, their current interests will increase in value. If the feds don't impede the spread, the spiders will just expand their web to catch new flies.
They never admit that they are being subsidized by you and me. New Jersey recently granted Wynn's Mirage both land and tax breaks to expand there. Never satisfied, Mr. Wynn wants Jersey taxpayers to foot the bill for a tunnel to shunt auto travelers to his free land. Wynn just got the Clark County commission to allow him to build a monorail between his properties and around an angered Caesars Palace.
In Carson City, big gamblers are busily trying to jack up the state's business tax by 20 percent on everyone save themselves. They are also pushing the legislature to impose a sales tax increase on Las Vegans, a tough trick to turn now that it takes a two-thirds vote to impose a new levy. No problemo if the wheels have been properly greased with campaign cash.
The gamblers are also "allowing" an increase in the Las Vegas area room tax to help pay for growth-related needs. It will raise only $27 million of the needed $3 billion and will all come from tourists, but I guess it's the thought that counts.
The only piece of legislation gamblers failed to juice through in 1995 is now back before the assembly judiciary committee chaired by Bernie Anderson (D-Sparks). Assembly minority leader Lynn Hettrick (R-Gardnerville) last week brought back the Blackball Bill (AB 248). It would place gamblers in a class by themselves. Alone among Nevada businesses, they would be exempt from worker lawsuits arising from sharing information with other gamblers about employees.
No matter what your boss might say to another gambler about you, true or false, you'd have no recourse. You could be blackballed, reduced to second-class citizen in a second-class state. They wouldn't risk breaking federal law by calling somebody applying for work a "union sympathizer." Such a person might just be code-named a "troublemaker" for making outrageous demands like overtime pay (which would be pretty much eliminated by AB 212).
Another legislative gem currently promoted in the name of families and children involves banning "neighborhood casinos." No, not slots in bars and grocery stores, but larger places, like Baldini's, the Gold Dust West and the Bonanza, which might suck traffic away from the major players. The good ole boys in Gomorrah South have found neighborhood casinos quite an irritant for some time. Now, they're gonna make Dodge City safe for widows and orphans. Nice to know they're always thinking about protecting the weak.
Not even the NFL worries about gambling these days. Last week, Louisiana officials issued the last available riverboat casino license in that honest, upstanding, God-fearing state. It went to a partnership including Edward DeBartolo, Jr., owner of the San Francisco 49ers. The team's name was conspicuously absent from the publicity.
Las Vegas wants $45 million from the legislature to expand the original Shark Tank, Thomas & Mack Center at UNLV, to accommodate (don't laugh) rodeos. The unannounced agenda involves more collegiate basketball, which brings big betting action. That's one theory as to why Sen. Bill Raggio (R-Reno), who represents gambling clients as an attorney, stifled all embarrassing questions about university system financial improprieties during a recent hearing.
I just hooted when I saw local gambling executives praise the honesty of their games in reaction to the ABC report. Near-miss slots don't exist, one said rather self-righteously. That's beside the point.
Casino gambling is a "flat show," an old carnival term for games rigged so that the player has little or no chance of winning. The only way to make money in a casino is to own one. Games where the player enjoys anywhere near an even chance get banned. Skillful players, like blackjack card counters, get blackballed because they can beat the house too consistently.
When you walk into a casino, keep in mind that you have entered a flat show. Your chance to win is about the same as landing that dime on the flat plate to win the bowl of colored water at the fair. And you're the goldfish.
Governments love gambling as a painless revenue source, "voluntary taxation" from slot-playing voters. Casino taxes pay for big brooms to sweep gambling-related family and social problems under the rug.
It's getting harder and harder to tell gamblers from governments. John Ascuaga's Nugget now requires your Social Security number before you can even enter its annual free house drawing.
Home sweet home means Nevada. Keep one hand on your sixgun and the other on your wallet.
Be well. Raise hell.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988. This column originally published 3/16/97.
Nevada Instant Type in Sparks and both Office Depot Reno locations.