Legendary former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman sat down with Book TV interviewer Peter Slen and a martini at Freedom Fest in Las Vegas on July 12, for an interview about his book, "Being Oscar: From Mob Lawyer to Mayor of Las Vegas — Only in America."
I was attracted to the program because of my fascination with the phenomenon of Las Vegas for its spectacular growth and transformation, as depicted in books and on film, its recent real estate bust and the fact that the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., represents the state. The fact that the book is also a "Philadelphia story" came as a complete surprise — more about that later.
Goodman served as mayor from 1999 to 2011, twice re-elected with more than 80 percent of the vote, and was succeeded by his wife, who he quipped is a better mayor than he was. Both Goodmans started out as Republicans, switched to the Democrats to vote in a primary and then dropped their party affiliation. Goodman explained that he likes to deal with people without the barrier of having a party letter after his name.
Goodman told of arriving in Las Vegas with his wife, now of 51 years, when it was a city of only 70,000, with no building over two stories tall, and seeing it grow to over 2 million and become a destination city with the best food, shopping and entertainment. He remarked that now that gambling is ubiquitous, it is the scale and features of the city that make it attractive to visitors, rather than the gambling.
Asked by Slen whether there is, in fact, a Mafia, Goodman responded that he doubted it, given that even the FBI director had denied it, but he learned that it does exist, in two ways. One was when he heard a wiretap of a mob initiation ceremony, and it had all the features attributed to it by legend. The other was when, as his practice grew and he became the lawyer of choice for "reputed mobsters," he learned that there were rivalries among the families he represented. He explained that "reputed mobster" is the proper term for an alleged mobster who has not been convicted.
He was recruited to play himself in the movie "Casino" because his name came up in the discussion as the top mob lawyer, and they offered him the part even though he has no ability to memorize lines. Then, when he became mayor and learned that all applications to film in Las Vegas go through the mayor's office, he established a condition for approval that he would appear in every film. When he learned that sometimes his parts would land on the cutting room floor, he took steps to prevent that, and in one case, the snipped film was retrieved and added to the DVD version.
In closing, I was amazed to find parallels in Goodman's and my experiences at the outset of our careers. The following are some first-person observations leading to ideas that can be instructive to readers.
Goodman graduated from Haverford College, a prominent liberal arts, and liberal, institution in the Philadelphia suburbs, then got his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Thus we are fellow law alumni. When I took Criminal Law, there were too sections. One was taught by Henry Ruth, the head of the New Jersey Crime Commission that had subpoenaed Frank Sinatra, with the result that he was barred from the state when he failed to appear. The section I took was taught by Louis Schwartz, a legendary socialist who contended that there was no such thing as organized crime, and even if there were, it would be preferable to sloppy, disorganized crime.
We were treated to an assembly to hear a famous New York City organized crime buster named Ralph Salerno, and he told the students that one of the techniques the mob used to co-opt politicians was that they would make a contribution, perhaps without the knowledge of the recipient, then later they would ask for a favor. One of the students asked how a politician might know a contributor was a mobster, and Salerno answered with a question: "Would you take a contribution from Frank Sinatra?"
Goodman told the story of deciding that it was time to get to work and looking for something other than "white shoe" opportunities. In desperation he walked into the office of Arlen Specter, then Philadelphia district attorney who had just gotten a conviction in a big Teamsters Union case.
Goodman got an entry-level job there and found himself working on a case involving the murder of a wealthy widow, with $300,000 from under her mattress subsequently laundered at the crap tables of Las Vegas. He and his wife went out to Vegas, and Goodman acquired a reputation as a lawyer who could win acquittals in cases that were based on wiretap evidence. In one of these cases, taps were placed in 26 cities and the wiretap orders were signed in the same name with different handwriting.
In the course of his career, Goodman learned that government lawyers used questionable methods in obtaining evidence, and they followed a practice of pursuing small-fry defendants for convictions and ignoring the big-time crooks.
Remarkably, I had a similar experience while clerking for my uncle, who was a county-seat lawyer in Williamsport, Penn. The government had brought a federal gambling case based on wiretap and other evidence obtained in Williamsport and Las Vegas. Just as Goodman did early in his career, I found a weakness in the government's case, and my uncle's client was severed from the larger case that ultimately went to a trial that led to convictions of other defendants. There was also an egregious defect in another case tried in Williamsport where the wiretap order had not been signed at all.
While it occurred to me that I might have talent that I could leverage, I followed a different path that led to Washington and banking law. Yet the basic lesson remains, that government lawyers and regulators are driven by short-term bureaucratic incentives to bring easy cases against small targets and allow the large-scale perpetrators of organized crime, represented by the best lawyers, to operate with relative impunity.
In the intervening years since Goodman and I learned to question the validity of federal policies, this syndrome has progressed to the point where the Attorney General of the United States testified that the largest banks are essentially "too big to prosecute" because the consequences of their conviction could upset the financial system. This, along with the "too big to fail" policies of banking regulators create incentives for ambitious perpetrators to makes sure to pursue crime and failure on the largest possible scale.
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