Book details colorful history of Silver State gambling regulation
For the Appeal
It will be like Old Home Week at the Appeal on Tuesday evening when my Sawyer administration friend and colleague, respected Las Vegas attorney Bob Faiss, and I present our gaming control oral histories from the 1960s and beyond as part of the University of Nevada Oral History Program’s comprehensive project on gaming regulation in the Silver State.
Over the past few years 20 former state gaming regulators were interviewed by casino industry veteran Dwayne Kling, who held senior positions at several Northern Nevada clubs before retiring in 1995 and joining the thriving Oral History Program. Kling’s 2001 interviews with Faiss and me were edited and prepared for publication by Program Director Prof. Tom King and members of his staff led by able assistant Mary Larson, who will preside at Tuesday’s book presentation. Their collaborative efforts depict a fascinating eight-year (1959-67) slice of Nevada history that changed the face of this state and the gambling business forever.
When young upstart Elko County District Attorney Grant Sawyer, a Democrat, upset popular Republican Gov. Charlie Russell of Carson City in 1958, he vowed to pursue a “hang tough” gaming control policy designed to greatly reduce the influence of organized crime in Nevada’s highly profitable legal gaming industry, and he engineered major changes in gaming regulation during his eight years in office. At the outset, Gov. Sawyer convinced the Legislature to create a two-tiered system consisting of the five-member Nevada Gaming Commission, which has final authority on licensing matters, and the investigative Gaming Control Board, which handles day-to-day gaming law enforcement.
In his very informative oral history, Bob Faiss, now one of the nation’s leading gaming attorneys, provides a detailed account of how Sawyer and his closest associates Ð including Faiss himself, brilliant and resourceful Chief of Staff Dick Ham (a Carson City resident), legendary Gaming Control Board Chairman Ed Olsen and like-minded lawmakers Ð restructured a weak and almost non-existent gaming control system and made it work in the best interests of our state. The new structure paid particular attention to the Mob connections of gaming license applicants, minimized cheating by instituting random card and dice pickups in the casinos, and assigning Control Board auditors to casino counting rooms to make sure the state was collecting its fair share of gross gaming revenues.
Nevada has long since become a gaming control model for many other states and foreign jurisdictions. After I succeeded Faiss in mid-1963 as the gaming agencies’ public information officer/press spokesman, we were visited by high-level delegations from the islands of St. Lucia in the Caribbean and the Isle of Man off the coast of Great Britain, who were considering the legalization of casino gambling. Even then, the word was getting out about Nevada’s tough new gaming control system.
The best-known events of my three-year tour of duty at the gaming agencies were the 1963 Frank Sinatra gambling license revocation case and the legal battle to keep “Black Book” hoodlums out of Nevada. Both of these events are dealt with at some length in my oral history because I lived them up close and personal.
The Sinatra case began when Ol’ Blue Eyes rolled out the red carpet for his friend, Chicago Godfather Sam “Momo” Giancana and his girlfriend, singer Phyllis McGuire, at North Lake Tahoe’s Cal-Neva Lodge, which Sinatra owned. Control Board investigators found out about Sinatra’s unsavory guest and we eventually revoked his gaming licenses amidst a continuing firestorm of national media attention. One key incident was a nasty phone call from Sinatra to Control Board Chairman Olsen, which I overheard. As Olsen reported, the singer was “profane in the extreme,” to put it mildly.
The Black Book was compiled by the Sawyer Administration in an effort to keep notorious gangsters out of Nevada casinos. Giancana was among 11 original Black Book members, one of whom, Chicago wiseguy Marshall Caifano (better known as Johnny Marshall), sued the state of Nevada for damages, claiming that his civil rights were violated when he was thrown out of several Las Vegas Strip casinos. The case went to trial in late 1963 and Marshall lost when the court ruled that his federally protected rights didn’t include the right to frequent Nevada casinos. In fact, a federal appeals court declared that allowing unsavory characters like Marshall to roam the Strip “would create an emergency comparable to that presented by an animal running at large while suspected of being afflicted with hoof-and-mouth disease.” Well said! And so true.
That’s how the 1960s turned out to be a decisive decade in 20th century Nevada, and I’m proud to have played a bit part in that gambling law enforcement drama. Our book presentation is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Appeal, and my loyal readers are cordially invited. I hope to see you there.
PRIMARY ELECTION – Following are some of the candidates I’ll be voting for on my Democratic ballot in the Aug. 15 Primary Election: Ruby Jee Tun for U.S. senate, Jim Gibson for governor, Roderick Boyd for secretary of state, incumbents Michael Douglas and Nancy Becker for supreme court, David Fulstone for university regent, and Neil Weaver for supervisor. Nothing against the other candidates, but these are my personal choices, for what they’re worth, if anything. Please vote!
• Guy W. Farmer, a longtime resident of Carson City, worked for Nevada’s gaming control agencies during the period 1963-66.