Lawyer's judgment at issue


Attorney Jason Landess has appeared in Clark County courts for nearly 30 years, but not always with a client at his side.

During a spree at the blackjack tables in 1994, Landess won and promptly lost more than $2 million, betting as much as $10,000 a hand. Several casinos sued him for unpaid markers, debts he would never repay after filing for bankruptcy.

In 2003, Landess was back in court, this time for a meeting in chambers with Judge Donald Mosley, a longtime friend and the judge presiding over one of several felony cases against Landess' son, a methamphetamine addict and car thief.

And last year, as a plaintiff in a cut-throat civil lawsuit, Landess won millions of dollars in a dispute over a cosmetic-surgery device he helped patent and market.

Now, with his newfound wealth, Landess is running for district judge in a race widely regarded as the most compelling judicial contest this year.

The incumbent is scandal-plagued Judge Elizabeth Halverson. Family Court Judge Stefany Miley is also vying for the seat.

Landess, a veteran civil litigator, former Orange County, Calif., prosecutor, and Third World missionary says he wants to bring "dignity, decorum, and competency" back to the bench.

Landess argues that he is the most seasoned and skilled litigator in the race, but he also carries baggage: past gambling debts that today likely would have resulted in criminal prosecution, and attempts to influence prosecutors and judges to save his son from prison.

"I have sometimes made the right decisions and sometimes made the wrong decisions, but I'm a good man and a fine candidate, without question the most qualified person to serve," Landess said earlier this month.

Meet Jason Landess, 62, a man who doesn't apologize for the mistakes of his past. Just the opposite. He believes his understanding of "some of the demons of the world" make him an ideal candidate for judge.

By the mid-1990s, things were going well for Landess. He was a partner in a respected law firm and had overcome the anguish of a second divorce, he said.

In January 1994, Landess said he walked into The Mirage with a wallet full of money and began throwing down chips at the blackjack table.

The son of a professional gambler, Landess had spent much of his youth in Utah and California pool halls. But since moving to Las Vegas in 1980, he had resisted the temptation to bet big money, he said.

He succumbed to the urge that day, getting on a roll that lasted through the night and didn't end until he had pocketed $1.7 million.

"I had been here over 10 years and hadn't even gambled a dime," he said. "I had one of the most uncanny winning streaks anybody's ever had."

'ROCKET RIDE'

Landess said he took a feeling of invincibility to the Rio, the newly opened MGM Grand, and back to The Mirage.

He got a table all to himself, he said, simultaneously playing five hands of $10,000 each.

In explaining his belief at the time that he could not lose, Landess said: "It is the same twisted philosophy that any gambler has when you have a winning streak."

But in a matter of weeks, he lost everything. And then some.

By the end, Landess owed the casinos $380,000 for markers issued to him, according to court records.

Think Charles Barkley's recent legal woes, only with less publicity and little threat of criminal prosecution. Today, unpaid gambling markers in Clark County are treated like bad checks. Back then, they weren't.

Landess was dragged into civil court but found a way to wriggle out of trouble, according to court records and comments by Landess.

Though by his own account he was making $500,000 a year as a partner in the law offices of K. Michael Leavitt, Landess filed for bankruptcy to avoid his debts.

In the civil case against Landess, an attorney for the Rio in a court motion argued that Landess' wages should be garnished "before Mr. Landess can dispose of them, or otherwise convert them to exempt or judgment-proof assets."

After filing bankruptcy, Landess left Leavitt's law firm and went into private practice.

"I don't like embarrassment, and it was professionally embarrassing to file bankruptcy," Landess said. "I sat down and went on a rocket ride. It was a short rocket ride, but it was one hell of a rocket ride. I never ever played that kind of heavy play again."

He denied having a gambling problem, saying, "My biggest vice is buying a new set of golf clubs every two years."

Scott Bice, a law professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, said gambling debts and a bankruptcy filing shouldn't necessarily disqualify a lawyer from serving on the bench.

"Bankruptcy is a legitimate procedure that's there for people who get in over their heads," said Bice, who frequently writes about judicial selection issues. "The gambling obviously does raise questions about getting yourself into a situation where you'd be subject to some kind of pressure about how you do your job."

TROUBLED SON

Through his son, Landess, a father of four, has gotten a close look at the criminal justice system.

At age 14, his adopted son, Justin, got hooked on methamphetamine, Landess said. A string of juvenile and adult crimes followed.

By 19, Justin Landess was a serial car thief.

A Review-Journal examination of Justin Landess' case files shows that his father got closely involved in plea negotiations with prosecutors and defense lawyers.

In February 2003, for example, when the younger Landess pleaded guilty to stealing a car, public defender Robert Amundson told District Judge Valorie Vega: "Through the kindness of his father, he's kind of interjected himself in and he's hoping that his son will take this last chance. He's found a (drug treatment) program for him."

The prosecutor in that case, Bill Kephart, who is also running for district judge this year, spoke in court of Jason Landess' "involvement in the case" and "position in our community."

Vega sentenced Justin Landess to probation and drug rehabilitation on the felony. His probation on this and other cases would later be revoked, according to court records.

In a later case against Justin Landess, District Judge Donald Mosley invited Jason Landess and the attorneys of record to his chambers, according to court records.

Mosley, who in a phone interview referred to Landess' son as "little Justin," had known the Landess family for years. At the meeting in chambers, the judge wanted to know if his relationship with Jason Landess was a problem for either attorney. Neither said it was.

The case records show Mosley later sentenced Justin Landess to a suspended prison sentence on another felony guilty plea stemming from the theft of a car.

Two months after the sentencing, Mosley disqualified himself from the same case on the grounds that he was friends with the defendant's father.

Asked whether he should have recused himself earlier, Mosley said, "I've known a lot of attorneys. The Supreme Court has made it clear that just knowing an attorney isn't enough" to require a recusal.

Justin Landess already had two felony convictions, and his cases kept coming.

He again got probation, after a stint in boot camp, for a third felony case in 2003 that was amended down to a gross misdemeanor.

That case was assigned to Michael Cherry, then a district judge, who is now a state Supreme Court justice. And again, Jason Landess was involved in the discussions about possible plea deals, the court record shows.

In 2005, Justin Landess was sentenced to six months in the Clark County Detention Center by former District Judge John McGroarty, another judge that Jason Landess referred to as a friend.

The last case originated as a theft-related felony but was also amended down to a gross misdemeanor, which meant Justin Landess avoided the risk of being labeled a habitual offender.

After two stints in prison for violating the terms of his probation, Justin Landess moved out of state in the fall of 2006. He now is 24 years old and is in custody on theft charges, according to authorities. He pleaded no contest to the charges and is awaiting sentencing.

In all his Nevada cases, Justin Landess was declared indigent and was appointed a public defender.

Jason Landess said he never asked judges for favors that, at least for a time, kept his son out of prison.

"You can't ask judges who you may know personally to give favoritism to your child," he said. "But I make no apologies as an attorney and as a father for trying to do as best I could to keep my son from being thrown in prison."

Sylvia Lazos, a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said Landess' intervention in his son's criminal cases is "highly relevant to voters" and amounts to "skirting the edge of propriety" if he used his relationships with judges to influence the outcome of the cases.

Landess said the heart-wrenching experiences with his son have made him a better judicial candidate.

"I think I'd be eminently more qualified to pass judgment, because I've been through the trials and travails of a parent to understand the dynamics of this kind of a problem," he said.

WORLD TRAVELS

By his own admission, Jason Landess isn't a perfect man.

"If you want somebody who's lived a perfect life and never stubbed their toe, I'm sure you can find that person," he said. "If you think that prepares them to be a mature, prepared jurist, you're dead wrong."

Landess said he's proud of his own evolution from troubled youth to successful attorney and candidate for judge.

According to Landess, his parents struggled financially during his childhood.

They divorced when he was 5, and he split time between Ogden, Utah, with his mother, and Salt Lake City with his father.

"I used to entertain myself as a boy standing on a stool and rolling pool balls," he said.

On his campaign Web site, Landess touts himself as a man of many athletic talents, including billiards, archery, karate, racquetball, skiing, and more.

As a teen, he got a girl pregnant, married her at 16, got divorced, dropped out of school, and moved to Southern California with his father, where he spent time hanging around the pool hall where his father worked.

At 23, during the height of the Vietnam War, he set off on a trip to Bangkok, Thailand, with "a guitar in one hand, and a suitcase in the other."

There, he had a religious awakening that prompted his return to the United States and school, he said. He earned his high school diploma through a GED program and attended community college before graduating with honors from UCLA and receiving his law degree from Loyola University, he said.

After serving as a prosecutor in Southern California for two years, he moved to Las Vegas to practice law. In 1982, he took a job with Outreach International, which assists impoverished villages in developing Third World countries.

BIG MONEY

A decisive moment in Landess' career came last year when he won a court battle with two former business partners. That was after he shut down his law practice in 1999 to go on an entrepreneurial adventure.

He became president of a company that sought to sell a specialized needle for removing spider veins. The device was invented by Las Vegas doctor Dennis Gordon. Landess was brought in to patent and market it.

The company, Advanced Medical Products, soon got the financial backing of Chicago cosmetics magnate Marilyn Miglin, who tested the device on herself before seeking to sell the rights to a larger company.

When those negotiations faltered, Landess accused Miglin and Gordon of trying to freeze him out of their deal.

At times during the five-year legal battle, Landess represented himself. And he prevailed.

In March 2007, a Clark County District Court jury awarded him $16.8 million. An out-of-court settlement ultimately netted him between $5 million and $10 million, Landess said.

The windfall freed up Landess to assess his options and seek public office, he said.

Halverson and Miley, Landess' opponents, both got low scores in the 2008 Judicial Performance Evaluation conducted for the Review-Journal.

Only 55 percent of respondents recommended retaining Family Court Judge Miley in her present position, which isn't up for election until 2010. But Miley is running for a seat on the general-jurisdiction District Court.

Only 8 percent said Halverson should be retained.

The top two finishers in August's primary will square off in November.

"The good news is I have more money in the bank than I ever did," Landess said. "I want to spend the remaining years of my life doing a valid public service. There are no ulterior motives."

Contact reporter Alan Maimon at amaimon@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0404. Contact reporter Frank Geary at fgeary@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0277.

 

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