Las Vegas according to three governors: The fall of the mob, a land of prostitutes and potential terrorism risks

Former Nevada Governors Robert List, center, Richard Bryan, left, and Bob Miller participate in a panel discussion at the Mob Museum in downtown Las Vegas Wednesday, April 25, 2013.

Three Nevada Governors

Former Nevada Governors Robert List, left, (1979-1983), Bob Miller, center, (1989-1999) and Richard Bryan (1983-1989) pose at the Mob Museum in downtown Las Vegas Wednesday, April 25, 2013. The former governors spoke during a panel discussion titled Protectors of the State  A Conversation with Three Former Governors. Bryan was also a U.S. senator from 1989 to 2001. Launch slideshow »

In 1979, the year most Nevada historians identify as the turning point when mob influence in Las Vegas began to wane and corporations started taking over the city’s casinos, the chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission approached Gov. Bob List and offered his resignation.

The FBI had learned that Joe Agosto, head of the Tropicana’s "Folies Bergere" show, was skimming profits. Agents working on "Operation Strawman," a wiretap investigation, heard Agosto boast about how much clout he had with gaming regulators and about having “Mr. Cleanface” in his pocket.

The state buzzed about the identity of Mr. Cleanface. Rumors were that it was the commission chairman.

The chairman met List in the governor's mansion and promised List that he wasn't in cahoots with Agosto, and List rejected his offer to resign.

“I said, ‘Tell me the truth. Are Agosto’s allegations accurate?’" List said. “And he said, ‘No, they’re not. He lied.’ And I thought about it for a moment, and I believed what he said, and it was one of those moments where you look inside yourself. And I said, ‘I won’t take your resignation. If I do, the whole world is going to believe our whole system is corrupt. We’re going to tough this out. I want you to stay on.’”

The Gaming Commission chairman was Harry Reid, now U.S. Senate majority leader. The allegations were untrue.

List never told the story publicly — until Thursday.

He shared the memory as part of 90 minutes of recollections about Las Vegas' history by him and former Govs. Richard Bryan and Bob Miller.

More than 150 people jammed a second-story courtroom at the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement — the Mob Museum — for a three-way conversation that covered the end of the mob's influence on the state’s casino industry, Howard Hughes’ role in changing Las Vegas culture and the mysteries of Area 51.

The presentation was part of the Mob Museum’s Courtroom Conversation series. The event was punctuated by a book signing by Miller, whose “Son of a Gambling Man” went on sale earlier this month.

Here's what the governors said:

On the mob:

There’s one particular myth that drives Bryan nuts: the common misconception that the mob controlled Las Vegas.

“False. False. Not true,” Bryan said. “There was no question they were here. But all the mob wanted was to be left alone. ... The mob never controlled things and never sought to control things.”

The governors said they never felt endangered by mobsters, although List said there were times extra security was ordered for him when he traveled.

Author Jack Sheehan, who moderated the panel, recalled that local television journalist Ned Day, who produced stories about mob associates and whose car once was firebombed, occasionally received Polaroid photos of severed body parts with the message: “This is you if you don’t lay off.”

On Howard Hughes:

The governors agreed that Hughes played a big role in ridding the city of its mob influence. List said Hughes came to Las Vegas during Gov. Paul Laxalt’s administration, shortly after the state passed its corporate gaming law.

“We were trying desperately in those days to bring in new money and clean money,” List said. “So, along came Howard Hughes, who bought the Desert Inn of all places. It had been a mob-infested place. Then he started buying other places, including the Frontier. The mob had been there. He really helped clean out the mob. He became a tremendous part of the transformation.”

“People around the country didn’t know Howard Hughes had 10-inch fingernails and shot rubber bands at flies,” Sheehan said. “They just knew that he had broken world records in aviation and he made movies, and many people knew of him as the wealthiest person in America. So the perception was that Howard Hughes went to Las Vegas to buy hotels.”

On Las Vegas being a target for terrorists:

The governors all said that Las Vegas should be concerned about being a potential target for terrorists.

“When you look at this Islamic fundamentalist ideology that’s sweeping the world, they detest the culture of the West,” Bryan said. “If you hate the culture of the West, Las Vegas is the poster child of that which you dislike.”

Bryan said the best strategy to combat terrorism is for all Las Vegans to speak up if they see something suspicious.

On being the butt of Johnny Carson jokes:

Bryan recalled defending the state after a run-in he had with former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm. Lamm opposed the expansion of gaming in Colorado and one day declared that “every fourth woman in Las Vegas is a hooker.”

Late-night talk show host Johnny Carson picked up on Lamm’s comments and repeated them for several nights. Bryan grew weary of the jabs and wrote a letter to Carson.

“Big mistake,” Bryan said. “It wasn’t too many weeks after that I was featured in Johnny Carson’s jokes. And the theme was, ‘Lighten up, Governor.’”

On Las Vegas' "What happens in Vegas" slogan:

Asked about the fine line between marketing Las Vegas as a place to release inhibitions and keeping a lid on illegal activities, Miller said it’s a delicate balance.

“For a long time, we tried portraying ourselves as a family destination, and we have some of that reputation left," he said. "To some degree, you can do that. But it’s not really consistent with the entertainment, gaming and the nightlife atmosphere. So a decision was made from a marketing standpoint about ‘What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.’ It means you can have fun, but there are limits. I think law enforcement does a good job of allowing people to express themselves.”

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Bryan said. “We suffer sometimes because of our image. On the other hand, we profited immensely from this edgy image. It turned out to be one of the most popular, best-received promotional pieces in Las Vegas history. That edginess gets people to come here. It’s not like having a convention in Dubuque."

On Area 51:

Miller talked about how he and tourism officials tried to call attention to one of the state’s rural highways near Area 51 by calling it the “Extraterrestrial Highway” and featuring two speed limits – 65 mph and Warp 4.

Miller joined the cast of “Independence Day,” which was being filmed in the desert, to get a look at Area 51 by flying near the perimeter in a helicopter.

“The pilot got on the radio and said, ‘Dreamland, Dreamland, this is Nevada One,’" Miller said. "Dreamland was the radio call sign for Area 51. The voice on the radio said, ‘Who did you say this was?’ and our pilot said, ‘It’s Nevada One, we’re going to fly close to the perimeter, but we’re not going to enter.’ There was a pause for about a full minute. Finally, the guy on the other end comes back and says, ‘I don’t know who you think you’re talking to, but you’re not talking to me because I’m not here.’”

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