Former Gov. Miller recounts showdown with Hilton execs

Gov. Bob Miller was considered an ally of Nevada’s gaming industry during his 10 years as governor, but he didn’t always toe the industry line.

For example, my column about Paula Coughlin-Puopolo on Thursday prompted him to share a story I’d never heard before, where he not only bucked the gaming industry, he thwarted it.

In 1995, Hilton Hotels Corp. wanted a bill that would have saved the gaming company $5 million, if only it had passed as written.

The tort reform bill advocated by GOP Sen. Mark James and lobbyist Harvey Whittemore contained language that would have retroactively taken away Paula Coughlin-Puopolo’s $5 million jury verdict.

The language was subtle, almost buried, but The Associated Press’s longtime bureau chief Brendan Riley broke the story of the bill and it quickly went national. The Nevada Legislature was considering screwing a woman out of $5 million a jury said she deserved. Foul play.

“I called in the proponents and said if that bill proceeded one more day, I’d publicly indicate it would be vetoed,” Miller recalled Thursday.

The bill was not in the best interest of Nevada and it was inhumane, Miller said.

Coughlin-Puopolo won the jury award in 1994 after suing the resort company in the aftermath of the 1991 Tailhook convention, a rowdy, raunchy annual event at the Las Vegas Hilton. She sued after she was molested by drunken Navy aviators on the third floor as part of a tradition called “the Gantlet.”

Miller, a former Clark County district attorney, said he was sensitive to violent crimes and crimes against women and the susceptible. He said the Tailhook situation crossed the line and he told the Hilton lobbyists and executives “this is not going to happen, and they backed off. It was a very blunt, direct message.”

Miller said the tort reform bill was based on “just pure greed and I said I’d not tolerate legislation based strictly on greed.”

His threat worked. The Hilton team backed off, without explaining they had been taken to the woodshed.

The retroactive language was removed and Coughlin-Puopolo received her $5 million from the Hilton and used the money well. The Navy helicopter pilot who had planned a military career took the profits from gambling — and opened a yoga studio in Atlantic City, Fla.