Jason Scavone talks about the Nevada Gaming Board’s “Black Book” on 97.1 the Point. Listen to the broadcast below.
Louis Tom Dragna died in November 2012 at 92. Not bad by any standard, but as far as wise guys go, it’s positively Methuselean.
Dragna was the son of Tom, consigliere to Jack Dragna, who headed the Los Angeles mob until his death in 1956. Louis might have been the acting boss of the L.A. family; he might have turned the gig down. Details are a he-said, she-said between mob rats, the feds and purported insiders. Either way, he was one of the 11 men originally placed on the Nevada Gaming Control Board’s Excluded Persons List—a.k.a. the Black Book—in 1960.
It took Louis Tom Dragna until May 2014 before his name was removed, proving the Black Book is like the old Othello slogan: A minute to join, a lifetime to get off.
While the reality of the Black Book is well known, the legal processes around it are still somewhat arcane and disturbingly vague. It starts with two interlocking regulations—Nevada Revised Statutes sections 463.151 through 463.155, and the Regulations of the Nevada Gaming Commission and State Gaming Control Board section 28. These two moderately verbose hunks of legalese give the state the authority and means to ban people from casinos. Technically, there are four criteria outlined that get you the scarlet letter treatment:
- Prior conviction of a crime which is a felony in this state or under the laws of the United States, a crime involving moral turpitude, or a violation of the gaming laws of any state;
- Violation or conspiracy to violate the provisions of this chapter relating to: The failure to disclose an interest in a gaming establishment for which the person must obtain a license; or willful evasion of fees or taxes;
- Notorious or unsavory reputation which would adversely affect public confidence and trust that the gaming industry is free from criminal or corruptive elements; or
- Written order of a governmental agency which authorizes the exclusion or ejection of the person from an establishment at which gaming or pari-mutuel wagering is conducted.
What started in 1960 with a bunch of mobsters and associates has become over the years a repository largely for slot and card cheats who had the bad luck to draw the Gaming Control Board’s attention. It’s more historical oddity than crucial bit of public service at this point; a ward against ghosts. It’s been 10 years since anyone accused of organized crime ties made the cut. But the above language gives broad power to state authorities in deciding who to sacrifice on the regulatory altar.
In practice, what happens is the Gaming Control Board accepts nominations from law-enforcement agencies or, in rare cases, from casinos themselves. Since the 1970s, anyone nominated to the Black Book can get a hearing. If the Board votes to accept the nomination of an individual, the wheels go in motion. The Gaming Commission becomes the arbiter of evidence and decides the nominee’s fate. If it isn’t a foregone conclusion, it’s close. No one the Board has sent to a hearing has escaped the Black Book—unless they died or went to jail prior to the Commission’s decision. (James Tamer had the rare honor of a second-ballot call. He was nominated twice, dismissed the first time in 1986 and entered the second in 1988.)
So how does law enforcement decide whom to target in the first place? Why are some enemies of the industry while others, like John Kane and Andre Nestor—who were recently the subject of an extensive Wired magazine piece about exploiting a bug in video-poker software to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars—are still allowed in Nevada casinos without the threat of a gross misdemeanor?
“I don’t know. I imagine it’s because they reach a certain level of frequency or seriousness of the crime,” says Gaming Commissioner Joe W. Brown, who is the director of the firm Fennemore Craig Jones Vargas. “They are actively pursuing their trade of cheating at cards or whatever they’re doing that they are deemed unfit to be in a casino. I guess it’s probably habitual.”
Frank Citro Jr. was convicted in 1985 on one count of racketeering. He was caught up with six others accused of running a loan-sharking operation that targeted poker players at the California Bell Club. The government said the group all had ties to a Chicago crime family and were trying to set up a large-scale loan-sharking and bookmaking operation from Southern California to Las Vegas. Three of seven who were accused walked, but Citro was sentenced to two years in prison and five years’ probation. He got out in 1990. That’s when a certified letter arrived, telling him he would have to appear before the Commission.
Most people fingered by the Board don’t show for their hearing. Citro did. On the first day, he wore a tux. The Commission, apparently, didn’t see the humor. When the hearing reconvened on November 21, 1991, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Miller presented, on behalf of the Board, the bill of particulars for Citro’s inclusion. (It’s always the deputy AG for gaming who presents the Board’s case.) She leaned on four felony convictions—particularly the last one that supposedly proved Citro’s association with organized crime figures—as the meat of her argument.
Citro’s attorney, William Watters, was ill-prepared. He disputed one of the felony convictions, but couldn’t produce supporting documents. His argument against “unsavory reputation” was even less convincing. “We’re here to tell you that the reputation has been manufactured by the government, giving him a moniker. You can’t be a gangster without a moniker. … [It] was given to him. He didn’t earn it.” Inherit the Wind, this was not.
The convictions are what they are, but “unsavory reputation” is shark-skin slippery. It gives the Commission enormous leeway when they’re making their decision. And that decision, Brown says, comes if the Commission is swayed by a preponderance of the evidence—not nearly the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt of a criminal-court case. Even hearsay is allowed.
“It’s the best judgment or discretion of the Board,” Brown says. “Perhaps maybe a thing you might argue about is an unsavory reputation. I guess that may be in the eye of the beholder. For the most part, things I’m aware of are if a guy is arrested and convicted of cheating or [committing] some crime against the casinos, or obviously some blatant crime of murder.”
That’s, of course, if they come under formal review in the first place. None of the co-defendants in Citro’s racketeering case ever faced down a hearing. Commissioner Kenneth Gragson even asked about Joseph Bolognese, a Las Vegan acquitted in Citro’s trial. Miller demurred because of the acquittal, even though Bolognese’s reputation was, in theory, just as unsavory as Citro’s. Hell, at the James Tamer hearing, the Board tried to contend that his association with Moe Dalitz was proof of his unsavory reputation. Yes, the Desert Inn’s Moe Dalitz.
Citro brought his family to the hearing and testified on his own behalf. No dice. It took less than two hours for the Commission to vote him in. And for 22 years, that’s where it stood. Then, in 2013, Citro did something unexpected: He went public with his intent to mount a challenge to be removed under a provision—section 28.080—titled “Petition to remove from the list.” It states: “Any person who, after a final determination by the Commission, has been placed upon the list may petition the Commission in writing and request that his name be removed from such list. The petition shall be verified and state with specificity the grounds believed by the petitioner to constitute good cause for removal of his name.”
Citro believes he has “good cause,” and hired Arlington, Virginia-based attorney Michael Lasher to handle his case. “The large argument is that Frankie for 26 years has not reoffended. He has done charitable works. The inability to get into the casinos hampers his ability to raise more money for the charities and frankly support himself,” Lasher says. “If we were just trying to expunge any collateral consequence of a conviction, he’d be able to do it. For this statute to have any meaning or validity, [the Gaming Commission] has to entertain these things.”
Citro isn’t the first to shoot for removal. Two men, Ruby Kolod and “Icepick” Willie Alderman, did the nigh-impossible and got themselves off the Book in 1965, probably with the substantial aid of Dalitz.
John Marshall, another of the original 11, challenged the law itself on constitutional grounds, but the 9th Circuit shut down that avenue in Marshall v. Sawyer, saying due-process rights didn’t apply. Marshall tried to take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but was denied a hearing in 1967. Tony Spilotro took a similar shot with the help of Oscar Goodman, this time in the Nevada Supreme Court, but the high court in 1983 was as unsympathetic as its federal counterpart 16 years earlier.
Lasher says that if Citro’s petition fails—and the Commission could simply elect not to hear it—he could consider attacking the statute under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, arguing that because a felon could expunge it proves the excluded are being treated unfairly. There’s one problem with that theory: Marshall and Spilotro both failed specifically with 14th Amendment arguments.
“I think the Black Book is the most unconstitutional invention that has ever hit the face of the Earth,” Goodman says. “People are branded with the mark of Cain. … It would be different if it would be a gambling-related offense, but to tell somebody who has been convicted of insurance fraud he can’t go into a casino restroom makes no sense. It was just a way of showing some muscle.”
In their 1995 book The Black Book and the Mob: The Untold Story of the Control of Nevada’s Casinos, UNLV criminal justice professors Ronald Farrell and Carole Case got to the end of the same rainbow. “So the Black Book indeed has served a purpose, though it’s largely a symbolic one. It has helped convey a public image of gaming as a legitimate industry and of the state as capable of keeping it free of crime and corrupting influences. Neither the possibility that the stated threats are not the real ones nor the continued existence of numerous other threats to gaming is as important as the belief that all is well in Babylon.”
At the moment, though, it’s moot. Citro says a recent surgery has caused him to sideline his pursuit. Lasher says he’s waiting on supporting evidence from his client before he can file. Once he gets it, he can have the petition filed within hours.
“I’m not gonna lay down, baby,” Citro, now 69, says. “I’m not a punk. I’m not the toughest guy in the world, but I ain’t gonna lay down. If these guys don’t put me back in that casino, I’m gonna come back and haunt them. The only way to dispute it is for me to do what I’ve done all these years: Be a good guy.”