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What are they hiding?: Gaming Control Board plays by a different set of rules

Updated May 26, 2024 - 12:21 pm

The Nevada Gaming Control Board has an exemption that most other law enforcement agencies in Nevada do not enjoy, and that, experts say, prevents transparency and accountability in a government charged with overseeing the state’s top industry.

The state agency that licenses and oversees Nevada’s casino industry has a special carve-out in Nevada Revised Statutes that assures confidentiality on all records involving work conducted by the Control Board’s agents in its Enforcement and Investigations divisions.

The Investigations Division reviews the background of applicants and prospective key employees to determine their viability, business integrity and suitability for licensure or approval. The Enforcement Division investigates casino crime as the law enforcement arm of the board, monitoring potential organized crime connections and making recommendations for the state’s List of Excluded Persons.

In terms of disclosure of information, both are guided by rules within NRS 463.120, the statute addressing the licensing and control of gaming.

David Cuillier, director of the Brechner Freedom of Information Project at the University of Florida, has done research and education on freedom of information since 1977, and says legislation blocking access to Control Board records is troublesome.

“Through the decades, special interests, particularly corporate interests, have slipped in lots of exemptions in state and federal public-record laws all across the country to hide their dealings,” Cuillier said in an interview. “And it often goes unnoticed until there’s a public interest or need to know what’s going on. And then there’s this law there stopping the public from finding out. And that’s really frustrating. These sorts of things have been accumulating really since the 1970s and have eviscerated public-record laws. It’s death by a thousand cuts.”

Records are confidential

The statute is unforgiving to any member of the public seeking public records on gaming investigations.

The statute says information “provided to the members, agents or employees of the board or commission by a governmental agency or an informer or on the assurance that the information will be held in confidence and treated as confidential.”

Lately, reporters have been unable to get key information about the investigation of former MGM Grand and Resorts World executive Scott Sibella, who pleaded guilty to violating federal Bank Secrecy Act laws for failing to file suspicious transactions reports on bookmakers gambling illegally in casinos when he was president of MGM Grand.

On April 30, the Gaming Control Board filed a complaint against Sibella that included allegations from federal prosecutors about illegal gambling that were unsealed by the U.S. District Court. That was about 11 months after the Control Board exonerated Sibella, saying allegations against him were unfounded.

The sequence of events and reports on the investigation would likely show how and when investigators discovered key information and what they knew about Sibella’s actions in Nevada. But the public may never learn what really happened because of the confidentiality of those records.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal in February sent a public records request that sought “investigative reports by Nevada Gaming Control Board agents involving the suitability for the licensing of Scott Sibella, former president of MGM Grand and of Resorts World Las Vegas, including correspondence between agents and sources including Robert ‘RJ’ Cipriani.”

Cipriani is an informant who said he gave details on illegal casino gambling to regulators four years ago, but he says he has been ignored.

The Control Board responded with agendas and minutes from Sibella’s appearances before the Control Board but refused to provide any investigative reports.

Corporate interests

Cuillier said he understands how some confidentiality legislation came about, but it’s critical for lawmakers to recognize the need for records to be made public as gaming and tourism continue to thrive in Southern Nevada.

Michael Green, an associate professor of history at UNLV, said the confidentiality provisions were placed in the law in the 1950s when the Gaming Control Board was established. The emphasis at that time was to eliminate organized crime from the casino industry.

Green said the roots of legislative intent came from a lawsuit, Tax Commission v. Hicks, a case that eventually went to the Nevada Supreme Court. The Nevada Tax Commission was the predecessor to the Gaming Control Board and there was a high level of interest in collecting taxes and fees from casinos to fund the state government’s general fund, a practice that continues today.

Marion Hicks was the licensed owner of the Thunderbird casino, but there were suspicions that gangster Meyer Lansky, an associate of Charles “Lucky” Luciano, was a hidden owner.

“When the Control Board was established, one of the first things they did was to suspend the Thunderbird’s license,” Green said. “A lawsuit followed.”

As the court case progressed, the issues of state versus federal oversight of casinos came into play.

“Essentially, the gaming interests were arguing that they had to be treated like anyone else in a court case,” Green said. “That the investigative process had to be similar to law enforcement. And that’s what they wanted. Because they wanted to be able to use the reasonable doubt standard and all the other things that you would use in the courtroom.”

The result was legislation that guaranteed silence on investigations of any kind.

In addition to a lack of information on the Sibella case, the information lockdown also has prevented reporters from getting information on the high-profile Steve Wynn case involving alleged sexual harassment claims. Wynn has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Green said reporters and authors repeatedly seek details about the murder of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, but police agencies won’t disclose them because the Beverly Hills Police Department considers it an open case.

Cuillier said the public should demand legislative change to enable better access to Control Board information.

“Clearly, there’s a huge public interest in Nevada on the gaming industry and making sure that it’s honest and transparent and accountable,” Cuillier said. “It’s such an important force in the state and the people should demand transparency on that. Otherwise, it leads to suspicion. What’s going on? Are we back to mobsters running Las Vegas? We’re not going to know unless that sort of thing is public.”

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on X.

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