$500,000 fines make bigger impressions on casinos than polite letters

Sometimes, it takes a cudgel, or two, or three, to get the gaming industry’s attention.

Three months ago, a polite warning letter from the Gaming Control Board advised the industry to clean up the nightclubs and topless pools, even if the clubs were leased out to operators.

Polite didn’t work. But a $500,000 fine did.

Earlier this month, Planet Hollywood rolled over and paid a $500,000 fine and admitted it didn’t control the bad deeds at the nightclub on site, Privé.

But the hardest blow occurred when county officials didn’t renew Privé’s liquor license. No liquor is a death knell for any nightclub.

Privé operators, the Opium Group, decided to fight back and appeal the loss of its liquor license to Clark County commissioners.

(The Florida-based company’s name suggests loose and easy standards about drug use, one of the major problems contaminating the clubs.)

The Opium folks confidently, and somewhat arrogantly, left ads on their Web site about events this weekend, assuming they would get a temporary liquor license and reopen in time to party as usual.

Except the permit was denied and Privé closed Tuesday, at least temporarily.

On Aug. 4, we’ll find out if the commissioners use a cudgel or a powder puff on Privé. That should be a meeting worthy of reality TV.

Opium’s arrogance wasn’t the smartest approach, and even though Privé has retained politically connected attorney Jay Brown, county commissioners won’t want to look like they’re softies, not when gaming officials have made cleaning up problems at the nightclubs this year’s cause célèbre.

(Makes you miss the ’70s, when weeding out the mob influence was the control board’s focus; but times do change.)

Harrah’s Entertainment took a far less arrogant tactic.

After hearing of Planet Hollywood’s troubles at Privé, Harrah’s invited Las Vegas police to check out its topless pool, the Sapphire Pool.

On Saturday, undercover police did and made nine vice arrests and two narcotics arrests, police Sgt. John Loretto said Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Harrah’s, which contracted with Sapphire Gentlemen’s Club to stock the pool with strippers, closed it indefinitely.

(Did Harrah’s officials really think that stocking a topless pool with topless dancers wouldn’t bring some troubles?)

But unless you chum the waters with women willing to bare their best assets, you get what I saw five years ago at the Mandalay Bay’s topless pool: one middle-aged topless woman and a bunch of disappointed middle-aged men. (Clarification: The woman wasn’t me.)

The undercover sting doesn’t mean the Rio is necessarily going to be whacked with a big fine, especially since Harrah’s hustled to check it out and close the Sapphire pool.

"We’ve got to take a look at the details and look at the operation, as well as the history, to make a determination as to whether a pattern exists," said Randall Sayre, the control board member who oversees the law enforcement aspects of gaming regulation.

While as many as nine properties are being scrutinized by the control board, Sayre said that many might not face actual complaints if they "take strong and forceful action."

Looks likes Harrah’s wants to make sure it’s on the "strong and forceful action taken" list.

Sheriff Doug Gillespie said the cooperative effort between state gaming regulators, local police and county licensing officials is proving effective.

Gillespie had some easy to understand advice for nightclub operators: "They’re very particular about who goes in. Be as particular about who is leaving. Is it someone highly intoxicated leaving with someone else? If they are, you (operators) should be intervening and watching out for that patron. You should be as cautious when they’re leaving as when they’re going in."

Of course, nobody’s tipping a club employee when they’re staggering out under the influence of drugs or booze.

Big money, big problems, and now it looks like a lot of big sticks are being wielded to get the attention of those in the industry who have looked the other way at underage drinking, drug use and sales, assaults, dumping customers, and sex acts (both willing and unwilling).

"We understand the entertainment aspect of Las Vegas," Gillespie said. "We’re not saying we can’t have it. But it’s important we have it in a safe environment."

Another rape connected to a nightclub doesn’t make Las Vegas seem like quite such a fun place.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison/.

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