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August 29, 2015

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Brothel lobbyist on quest for ‘great white whale’: legal prostitution in Vegas

Brothel Lobbyist George Flint

George Flint, brothel lobbyist and wedding chapel owner, with Ryan, who has been in the business for 20 years, at Sagebrush Ranch brothel located about 7 miles east of Carson City, NV, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012. Launch slideshow »

MOUND HOUSE — The brothel lobbyist always rings twice, George Flint explained as he shambled up the walkway to the Sagebrush Ranch, a scattering of bawdy houses in a cul-de-sac just 10 minutes from the Legislature.

That way, the working girls know they don’t have to line up to primp for a paying customer.

Inside, the small brothel is Nevada casino dark, tinged with red lighting. During Flint’s visit on a recent Wednesday afternoon, girls napped on couches and armchairs. One curled up under a red blanket. Another dangled her feet, in platform stiletto heels, over the arm of a chair.

The brothel’s public room was empty of other men. Flint, 78, propped himself on a stool at the bar. A brunette and a blonde — Trinity and Star — sat beside him, taking advantage of a lull in business to sip sodas and watch true crime mysteries on television.

Flint pulled out his business cards. He has two sets.

One is for his job as brothel lobbyist: “Your insurance against the Legislature,” he told the girls.

They nodded politely.

“Thank you,” Trinity said, sticking out her hand for an awkward handshake.

His second business card seems incongruous with his first.

“And if you get married,” he said, handing them a card for his wedding chapel business.

Yes, Flint is also a minister.

“Oh! I just got engaged,” said Star, her face brightening.

Flint is entering his 28th year as a uniquely Nevada political fixture: brothel lobbyist, wedding chapel owner, self-proclaimed mayor of the coffee shop at the Legislature and, perhaps most importantly, keeper of secrets.

If Dennis Hof, the flamboyant owner of the Bunny Ranch and star of the HBO series “Cathouse,” is the brothel industry’s public face, Flint is its political girth, an accepted part of the Nevada legislative machine.

Since the first Nevada “house of ill fame,” as they’re sometimes referred to in state law, was licensed in 1971, brothels have operated in low-slung “ranches” near industrial sites where wild mustangs graze. The businesses are residue of the state’s libertarian mining camp ethos.

Flint — who wears glasses with lenses the size of baseballs and walks with a heavy limp caused by a 1975 car crash after a night of celebrating a legislative victory — is the man who represents them at the Legislature.

Since becoming the industry’s lobbyist in 1985, he has cultivated a low profile for the industry and himself. He doesn’t walk around the Legislature with women on his arms. He rarely agrees to profiles. He believes a portion of the state will never be swayed by the legal industry’s argument.

“You don’t want to rub this business too much in people’s faces,” Flint said.

He then borrowed a line from former Speaker Joe Dini, a Democrat whose district was home to more than one brothel and who for years helped stop efforts to ban them: “Or as Dini liked to say, ‘Lie low in the brush.’”

But for an industry that is only one bill away from annihilation, Flint has big plans — he hears the footsteps of time, and this might be his last session.

He’s planning to take a run at the grandest date of all, the holy grail and great white whale of the brothel industry rolled into one: convincing lawmakers to allow legal prostitution in Clark County and Las Vegas.

Technically, it’s a simple fix: Eliminate a state law that says only counties with fewer than 700,000 people can issue work cards to prostitutes and brothel owners. Then, the Clark County Commission would have to allow it.

But Flint is inclined to make a more specific, major push in Clark County, the specifics of which he’s not ready to talk about yet.

Politically, though, it’s a massive effort, and Flint is working it both at the state and county levels.

While talking with a reporter in Carson City, Flint answered his ringing cellphone and offered a glimpse into the argument he’s making to policymakers.

“Tom, we’re talking a huge amount of money here, and no one is getting any of it. ... We’re talking three locations to start with. ... He’s a good Baptist boy, but you have to get him to understand — it’s happening anyway. We’re not changing anything. We’re taking the stink out of it.”

Tom, in this case, is Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins.

In an interview later, Collins would say he was open to the idea of talking about legalizing and regulating prostitution in Clark County.

“Does anyone think it’s not happening here?” Collins said the day after a prominent Las Vegas limousine company was indicted, in part, for operating as an illegal prostitution ring.

‘He could own this state’

Flint’s job as a lobbyist is traditional in many ways.

He wanders the halls at the Legislature, chatting up lawmakers and other lobbyists in the hallways and holding court at the small dining commons in the middle of the first floor.

He testifies at committee hearings and has been known to doze off once or twice, along with the best of them, while waiting for his turn at the microphone.

And he hands out campaign checks to candidates — only one of which was returned this year, Flint said proudly.

But by virtue of the industry he lobbies for, Flint also logs some fairly nontraditional duties — offering tours of Nevada’s houses of ill fame to gawking lawmakers and even handing out “freebie” visits to legislators with the women who work there.

But things may be changing.

The days when lawmakers would ask for passes to the brothels from Flint have quieted. For the first time, there were no requests last session, Flint said.

Flint acknowledged he’d passed out a fair number of coupons to elected officials in his day.

“I know enough to embarrass an awful lot of them, but I would never do it,” he said.

(One of Flint’s colleagues in the lobbying core once said, “I could own this state if I knew half of what he does.”)

Over the years, Flint has seen the industry change. He’s watched, sometimes uncomfortably, as it climbed slowly out of those obscure bushes in the state’s remote counties and onto cable television.

There’s Hof, outspoken and master of free publicity. Flint bristled at Hof’s high profile, worried that the media attention would bring an effort to ban the legal industry.

Lance Gilman, another brothel owner, was just elected to the Storey County Commission, bringing a new round of oh-my-gosh national media stories about the only state in the country where prostitution is legal.

“Maybe this is a door opener; it allows a little more visibility of the industry,” Flint said. “We have nothing to be ashamed of and a lot to be proud of, in fact.”

Flint’s reality: Men pay for sex

Amid all of the moral and ethical issues surrounding prostitution, Flint’s reality is that men pay for sex. They’ve been doing so for thousands of years, and they’re still doing it today.

Google "escort services." Do those women just enjoy conversation? Look at the pretty girl, by herself, slowly playing video poker at the casino bar, eager to chat up a middle-aged tourist. Look at the smut peddlers on the Strip, passing out girls-direct-to-your-room cards.

Look at how Las Vegas has marketed itself to the world: “What happens here, stays here.”

Click to enlarge photo

A handbiller outside the Flamingo just north of Flamingo Road on the Strip passes out cards for an escort service in May 2010.

“What do you think they’re talking about?” Flint asks, incredulous, as if having to explain how you know the world is round. “Losing money at the tables?”

To Flint, the rest of the country — even Las Vegas — is living in denial. They’ve been playing with prohibition, decades after it proved it didn’t work with alcohol.

Meanwhile, that naive approach has pushed the sex-for-money economy into the shadows.

Underaged girls are trafficked. Pimps beat up women. Sexually transmitted diseases and HIV are spread. Money changes hands — $7 billion a year in Las Vegas, Flint estimates — to criminals as part of a dark economy.

On prostitution, in Flint’s view, it’s a binary choice: illegal and dangerous or regulated and safe.

From the pulpit to the brothel

It wasn’t actually prostitution that first landed Flint in the Legislature. It was his job as a minister and wedding chapel owner.

Flint was born April 12, 1934, in Southern California, in the harbor city of San Pedro. His parents were both preachers, ministering particularly to the Southern California Japanese-American community. When the United States shipped off the Japanese-Americans to internment camps in Wyoming during World War II, his parents moved with them to minister. Flint was in the fifth grade.

Back then, there were brothels all over Wyoming, Flint said, maybe not legal, but tolerated and accepted. They were, Flint said, as prolific as Safeway stores.

Flint was a sportswriter for his high school newspaper and would travel around the region with the football and boys' basketball teams. Brothels were sometimes stops on those trips.

“I don’t know why, but I just accepted it as part of the life experience,” he said.

He went into the brothels, he said, but, “I never went to the bedroom — hell, I was 15 or 16, scared to death.”

The owners of one brothel, the Yellow Hotel, would come into his dad’s photo shop — his parents couldn’t afford to live on the modest salary the congregation paid — when they lived in Lusk.

“My father had a terrible distaste for them because they were in prostitution,” Flint said. “My father also hated Harry Truman, and that’s what made me a Democrat.”

But to Flint, the owners of the brothel, which he’d buy as a hotel years later, were “lovely people. Good businesspeople.”

Flint’s mother, Grace Flint, was much more understanding.

“She was elastic, middle of the road. ... She was much more tolerant of human frailties than my father was,” he said.

After high school, Flint went to the College of the Open Bible in Des Moines, Iowa, where he studied theology for three years. He doesn’t know why he did it.

“I was never motivated to go into the ministry,” he said.

He ended up moving to Eugene, Ore. (Last month, the biblical school Flint attended for three years, now known as New Hope Christian College, wrote an article praising Flint for sending weekly checks to support the Grace Flint Memorial Library, totaling $100,000. The article didn’t mention his day job.)

In 1961, married with four young kids, Flint visited his sister, who worked in a wedding chapel in Reno. They performed seven weddings in one day, and he saw a business.

In the spring of 1962, he moved his family to Reno. With $1,600 borrowed from two banks, he started his own chapel.

At that time, every other state but Nevada required either a waiting period before couples got married or a blood test. Nevada required neither, and Reno and Las Vegas were ready-made cheap honeymoon towns.

Flint rented an old Victorian house in Reno and opened the Chapel of the Bells.

Reading the newspaper during the 1963 legislative session, he started to get a bug.

“It looked to me like we were on rocky ground,” he said of the chapel business. “We weren’t respected. The attitude was that we married runaway kids.”

The evangelicals and the Catholics wanted the quickie-marriage industry gone.

His first legislative war came in 1967, when Nevada’s church leadership tried to squash the wedding chapel business — which they regarded as irreverent competition, Flint said.

To do it, Nevada church officials fronted a bill in the state Senate that would have declared couples married as soon as they picked up a marriage license — a move that would have essentially killed the quickie wedding chapel business.

Local pastors came up and testified their support.

Nye County Brothels

A sign for the Shady Lady Ranch brothel in Nye County. The Shady Lady, off U.S. Highway 95 about 30 miles north of Beatty, was the first brothel to hire a male prostitute. Nye County is one of 11 Nevada counties where prostitution is legal. Launch slideshow »

Then it was Flint’s turn.

Unbeknownst to the local pastors, Flint had called church officials at their out-of-state headquarters, including the Methodist, Catholic and Assembly of God leadership.

When he took the microphone, Flint explained to lawmakers that the national church leaders thought the idea of marriage via certificate was “very unorthodox, very nontraditional.”

In fact, he got the national leadership to say “that was the dumbest thing they ever heard of.” And he got them on tape.

“It was a good bloodletting,” he said.

Church leadership, after talking to the local pastors, claimed they were duped.

“I wasn’t 100 percent honest,” Flint said. “I didn’t tell them I was with a chapel.”

He was scolded by the lawmakers for his tactics, but the bill was dead. The industry was protected.

Since then, Flint says, he has pretty well rewritten most of Nevada’s wedding laws, including taking justices of the peace out of the business.

The great white whale

In 1985, Flint received a message at the Legislature that led to his role as both wedding chapel minister and brothel lobbyist.

A pair of brothel owners called him out to the Kit Kat Ranch, east of Carson City — in the same complex as the Sagebrush Ranch — for a meeting.

"There’s a new disease out there, called AIDS," Flint remembers them saying. "A movie star, Rock Hudson, has it." And, they worried, “it could be the downfall of the industry.”

They needed help keeping state lawmakers from trying to shut them down.

Before taking the job, Flint wanted to make sure Joe Conforte, the most prominent brothel owner in town, was on board. Conforte, now living on the lam in Brazil from the federal government on tax charges, would become a close friend. Then Flint talked with Dini, a Democrat and leader of the Assembly.

Dini blew up.

“‘The last thing we need is a brothel lobbyist running up and down the hall,’” Flint recalled Dini shouting.

Flint took the job anyway.

Since then, he’s not only fought off efforts to abolish legal prostitution, but tried to further weave the industry into the state’s economic fabric.

At least twice, he’s unsuccessfully worked to pass a state tax on prostitution, believing that lawmakers would never kill an industry on which it depended for money. Efforts in 2003 and 2009 failed because lawmakers felt the issue had become too big of a distraction for a relatively small amount of money.

But in the 2013 Legislature, which starts in February, Flint said he’s going to make a run at more sweeping legislation.

He said he has two lawmakers in the Assembly — whom he would not name — interested in “addressing the problem” of illegal prostitution in Clark County, by legalizing and regulating the industry.

First, the lawmakers want a survey of voters in Clark County, from a respected pollster, to measure voters’ opinions on the subject.

“I have to be very cautious,” Flint said. “Our intention over the next two months is to do a poll, stir up enough support in leadership, to at least take a shot at the issue.”

Flint also said this might be his last session.

“I’m dedicated to doing it in my lifetime,” he said. “I feel the lack of legalization and regulation in Clark County creates a huge amount of crime that needs to be addressed.”

Plus, he estimated, it could bring in $300 million to $400 million in taxes for the county, city or state, every two years.

While the proceeds from a sex act are now split 50-50 between the house and the working girl, Flint said he would propose a 40-40-20 split, with the government taking the low end.

But to do it, he’ll have to overcome the state’s biggest industry: the casinos. Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resort Association, which lobbies for most of the major casinos, said in a statement: “We do not condone the conduct of any illegal activity ... and would not support legalization” in Clark County.

Billy Vassiliadis, a top lobbyist and marketer in Las Vegas — but not speaking on behalf of the Nevada Resort Association, in this case — said legalizing prostitution would damage the prestige of the Strip, where some of the highest-class resorts in the world have been built.

“It is not consistent with what business travelers, convention delegates want,” he said.

Guy Rocha, a state historian who has studied the legal brothel industry, said Flint’s quest was a long shot. No longer does Nevada lead the way in libertarian trailblazing, as it did with divorce, boxing, gambling and the marriage industry. Instead, other states have taken the lead on issues like legalized marijuana and gay marriage. Nevada, with its corporate-owned casinos, is more cautious.

“Prohibition on sex for sale has failed, is a failure and will continue to be a failure,” he said.

It’s just, “the state’s not ready for George Flint yet.”

‘It’s not totally not normal’

Flint admits his dual role as minister and brothel lobbyist is “incongruous.”

“It was never planned,” he said.

But he likes to bring up the Bible in defending the brothel industry.

“People say, 'How can you, of all people, represent that industry?'” he said.

Here he taps a reporter on the leg to emphasize the point.

“Who was Jesus’ best friend? I think it was Mary Magdalene,” he said.

Flint said the brothel industry “deserves the best protection and guidance and help just like any other industry. Just as an attorney would.”

His second wife, Betty — to whom he has been married 44 years — and children are fine with his brothel lobbying, though he admits his wife sometimes gets irked when he shows friendship to some of the girls.

Flint said he believes in monogamy and the sanctity of marriage. He’s just realistic.

Has he ever been to a brothel? Of course, Flint said. He went out with a reporter the other day. Here’s what you really want to know: “If you’re asking if I’ve been to the bedroom? Yeah. I have.”

Between his first and second marriages, in the 1960s, “I reached out for the solace and warmth of professionals,” he said. “I haven’t been to a bedroom in 30 years, maybe longer. When you get to be close to 80, your needs are different.”

Click to enlarge photo

Brothel lobbyist George Flint testifies in committee on April 6, 2011, at the Legislature in Carson City.

Years ago, at a forum, a woman accosted him.

"Are you that George Flint?" she asked.

"Yes," he said.

“That … Mustang Ranch is a constant threat to my marriage,” she told him, inserting a profanity before the name of the establishment.

“Hold on a minute, lady,” Flint said, before giving her advice. “Listen carefully. Go down to Walden Books and buy ‘Joy of Sex.’”

Every night, he told her, take turns with your husband reading a few pages of the book out loud. Talk about your sexual desires, your sexual fears, your sexual inadequacies.

“Do that, and you’ll never, ever have to worry about the Mustang Ranch,” he said.

His point? By following Flint’s recommendation, the husband would never even consider going to a hooker.

He repeated some advice he gives during the marriage ceremonies he performs: “Never quit listening to each other’s wants and needs.”

But would Flint want one of his family members working in the brothel business?

“I had one daughter who died in her late 40s of alcoholism. A lot of times, I think she’d have been better off at the Mustang Ranch,” he said, getting quiet.

There are a lot of people living on the edge of society, he said. He wouldn't talk about it anymore.

Flint revels in telling real-life “Pretty Woman” stories, about the prostitutes who’ve made it out — used sex work to bank cash so they could get an education, become a nurse or get a doctorate, or met a husband through work.

But they don’t all end up that way. One of the women Flint introduced during an interview with the Sun has been working as a prostitute for two decades. She is now 50 years old and admitted she needed to find a new line of work. But what?

Flint could sense a reporter’s uneasiness with the profession.

But he justifies his quest for the spread of legalized prostitution with the knowledge that it is happening, regulated or not.

“All day today, nothing I’ve told you — I’m not going to tell you this is totally normal,” he said finally. “But don’t think it’s totally not normal either.”

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