Hero or Outlaw?

Harry Claiborne was both, says a new biography of the legendary federal judge from Las Vegas

Harry Claiborne was a sinner and a victim, a shrewd and honest attorney and a dishonest and an unwitting patsy, a ladies man and a family man, a federal judge committed to justice and a metaphor for a corrupt community.

If he sounds complicated, he was. Michael Vernetti’s new book tells a lot of his story, and shows that he was, above all, a metaphor for Las Vegas as it used to be, as many wish it still was and as some hope it will never be again.

Lies Within Lies: The Betrayal of Nevada Judge Harry Claiborne, published by Stephens Press, grew out of Vernetti’s research for a biography of Sen. Howard Cannon, a powerful Nevada Democrat. President Jimmy Carter nominated Claiborne to a federal judgeship in 1978 on Cannon’s recommendation. Then the world turned upside down.

Claiborne’s story is a primer on Las Vegas’ evolution. He became part of the wartime and postwar influx that tripled Las Vegas’ population between 1940 and 1950. He built a career and a family, then like many other Las Vegans enjoying an era of prosperity, he lived the American Dream.

He also fit in with the other side of Las Vegas. He liked the bright lights. He became a legendary courtroom lawyer, but that required him to be tricky, as lawyers sometimes must be—especially when they handle criminal defense, as Claiborne did so well.

Those years would prove fateful for Claiborne’s future as a judge. He represented and associated with a variety of characters as complicated as he was, including Frank Sinatra, whose Rat Pack and mob friendships epitomized Las Vegas’ hedonism, and longtime client Benny Binion, a brilliant casino operator and philosopher to some and an illegal gambler and killer to others.

Vernetti briefly addresses all that before turning to his main topic: that Claiborne was the victim of a betrayal by people he trusted and federal officials out to get him.

The villains include a pair of Joes: Joe Conforte, the notorious owner of the Mustang Ranch, who tried to avoid a prison sentence by lying to federal officials about Claiborne bribes; and Joe Yablonsky, who came to Las Vegas as agent-in-charge of the FBI office and made it clear that he considered many of the city’s elite little better than two-bit hoodlums. (They didn’t think much better of him.)

Vernetti thinks federal officials reached a point where they were so determined to get Claiborne that they believed a known liar—Conforte—and ignored that neat phrase atop the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.: “Equal justice under law.” The story he tells doesn’t make Claiborne’s prosecutors and persecutors look good.

Ultimately, though, they won. Claiborne spent more than a year in prison for income tax evasion. It was reminiscent of earlier government efforts to collar mobsters, even if it meant putting them in prison for the least of their crimes. Perhaps it was also a harbinger of Kenneth Starr’s Whitewater investigation, which morphed into a case of Bill Clinton lying about sex. Much like Starr with Clinton, Chief Justice Warren Burger spared no effort to assure Claiborne’s removal.

Vernetti neither claims that this is a complete biography nor avoids taking a stand. He makes a strong case against the federal government’s behavior—after all, if this could happen to a federal judge, it could happen to anyone.

The whole case remains puzzling in some respects. As smart as even his detractors knew him to be, why would Claiborne screw up his taxes and be so inattentive when he already knew that he was being watched? Perhaps he was dishonest, or made an honest mistake, or didn’t believe the federal government could sink so low.

Why did federal officials concentrate so heavily on him? That’s easier to answer: His case fits a long-term pattern. Sen. Pat McCarran once told a young aide, Grant Sawyer, that no Nevadan could hope to be on a national ticket because of the stigma of gambling. In the early 1960s, Attorney General Robert Kennedy planned a major raid on Las Vegas and, when then-Gov. Sawyer went to see him, he “looked upon me as someone who had just stepped out from behind a craps table,” Sawyer recalls in his oral history. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover disdained local authorities, and his successors had doubts about Sen. Paul Laxalt, well known as Ronald Reagan’s best friend, because he came from a state with gambling and organized crime, and had even co-owned a casino. The same officials who targeted Claiborne also had his colleague, U.S. District Judge Roger Foley, in their sights.

Claiborne became a judge during a time of great change in Nevada and its relationship with the federal government—and the government’s relationship with the country. Soon after his appointment, Reagan won the presidency by running against the federal government, once the province of the Good People who protected Americans from the Soviet Union.

But how Americans and, specifically, Nevadans viewed the government had changed. Reagan capitalized on the Sagebrush Rebellion, a mostly rural Western effort to gain local control over federal lands. Westerners never had liked the Interior Department, except when it built helpful dams. But by the late 1970s, government officials had been caught in a web of lies about Vietnam and Watergate. High inflation and unemployment stalled the long postwar boom and, for the first time in many years, left Americans less confident in their government.

And Nevada’s big blot finally attracted federal attention. The U.S. Organized Crime Task Force had targeted organized crime around the country. The old operators of the 1940s and 1950s flew under the radar to avoid attention, but in the 1970s and 1980s, Frank Rosenthal, Anthony Spilotro and Joseph Agosto, among others, openly flaunted their background and importance—and for too long, Nevada officials had been either an overly tolerant good-old-boy network, or reformers swimming upstream against the tide.

Even though Claiborne died in 2004 at age 86, he still excites passions. A recent panel on the book brought out his supporters, and a dissenter who muttered “bullshit” to herself throughout the discussion and walked out early. Coincidentally, a few days later, HBO debuted a documentary, Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV, featuring another Las Vegan who was accused of questionable associations, ran into trouble with authority and whose case continues to divide friends and foes alike. The middle of the road is a dangerous place.

Claiborne made his mistakes, and Vernetti is—probably rightly—far kinder about them than he might have been. The government was determined to clean up Nevada, even where it may not have been dirty. For much of his life, Claiborne was in the middle of everything. And being in the middle meant indictment, impeachment and removal from office.

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