Las Vegas Sun

November 16, 2018

Currently: 66° — Complete forecast

Political, business leader Jones dies at 89

Former Lt. Gov. Cliff Jones was remembered over the weekend as a dominant but gentlemanly force in Nevada.

Jones died Friday in the Life Care Center of Las Vegas after a lengthy illness. He was 89.

A memorial service will be 3 p.m. Tuesday at Palm Mortuary, 1325 N. Main St.

"He was just a real personable, intelligent guy," said Bob McDonald, a former deputy attorney general who met Jones in legal circles. "He had a lot of drive, and he was a mover, but he was also first class."

In his 69 years in Nevada, Jones helped construct Hoover Dam, rose in politics to the highest appointed position in the state Democratic Party, was one of the original owners of the old Thunderbird hotel on the Strip and owned interests in eight other Las Vegas casinos.

Among his many business deals, Jones founded the Jones Vargas law firm, started the state's first ready-mix concrete company and helped found Valley Bank of Nevada, which financed many early casinos.

A two-term lieutenant governor from 1947 to 1954, Jones became known as "Big Juice" for having the clout and connections to get deals made.

The moniker may have raised ethical concerns, but it was a sting operation by Las Vegas Sun Publisher Hank Greenspun that led to Jones' political downturn.

Jones, who was born Feb. 19, 1912, in Long Lane, Mo., moved to Nevada in 1931, when his family hoped Hoover Dam would turn the area into a boomtown.

From 1932 to 1935, Jones worked on the dam project, operating a crane and serving as a signalman.

He earned his law degree from the University of Missouri in 1938 and opened his law practice the same year in Nevada.

In 1940 Jones was elected to the Assembly and quickly rose through the Democratic ranks to become majority leader and chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He also served as a four-time delegate to the Democratic National Convention, beginning in 1940, and remained active for decades in county and state Democratic organizations. In 1954, Jones was a Democratic National Committeeman from Nevada.

At the same time his political career took off, Jones also proved a savvy businessman, founding Southern Nevada Industries -- the first ready-mix concrete company in Las Vegas -- in 1941.

Jones was granted a 2 percent interest in the Pioneer Club in exchange for helping the club obtain its lease and gaming license. He parlayed that interest into a stake in the El Cortez -- the beginning of a gaming career that took him round the world and led him to have interests in the Algiers, Dunes, El Cortez, Golden Nugget, Pioneer, Thunderbird and Westerner casinos.

Jones served from 1942 to 1946 in the 3rd and 9th Armies, leaving the military with the rank of lieutenant colonel and earning four Battle Stars and a Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster.

When Jones returned from World War II he was appointed to the District Court bench in Las Vegas, a post he held in 1945 and 1946.

McDonald recalls how Jones walked door to door in Reno stumping for votes.

"People didn't really do that back then," McDonald said. "He was really friendly and a real gentleman."

In the 1950s Greenspun became highly critical of Jones, whom he accused of using politics for opportunistic reasons.

"A lieutenant governor of a state should not be known in certain select circles as 'Big Juice,' " Greenspun wrote in a 1954 column.

That year Jones was snagged in a sting when Greenspun hired an agent to pose as an ex-convict seeking Jones' help in getting a gaming license. The agent secretly recorded a number of conversations with Jones and other public officials, and the ensuing controversy led Jones to step down as Democratic National Committeeman.

In 1966 Jones was indicted on perjury charges during a federal grand jury's inquiry into former Senate aide Robert G. Baker, who was accused of income tax evasion.

Jones had denied making arrangements for payments to Baker through Washington attorney Wayne L. Bromley -- a statement that led to the perjury charges. He was acquitted in June 1972.

"A lesser man might have gotten down, but it didn't get him down," fellow attorney, politician and friend Ralph Denton said.

"He had his problems, but he took them in stride. He was like the old prospector with a heart that says, 'Hope springs eternal.' "

Greenspun publicly supported Jones through the indictment and ensuing trial.

"I suppose Cliff Jones would look upon me as probably the last person to champion his cause, for we have been adversaries on many occasions," he wrote in May 1972, shortly before Jones' trial, noting that the government had "framed" the attorney.

After the acquittal, Greenspun wrote, "The victory does not belong to Cliff Jones alone, but to all the citizens who can similarly be the victims of oppressive and overreaching authorities."

Jack Carpenter, a former aide to the late Sen. Alan Bible, said he felt Jones was not only an "honorable man" but also a "common man." Carpenter, long associated with Democratic politics in Nevada, said Jones asked for only one favor from Sen. Bible -- to testify for him at his trial in Las Vegas, and the senator agreed.

Although his political career ended in controversy, Jones was successful in a number of business ventures. He was co-founder of Valley Bank of Las Vegas and founder and secretary director of First Western Savings and Loan Association.

Jones controlled businesses throughout the world, including Casino de Libon in Beirut and Eastern Hemisphere Investments in Paris.

In September 1979 Jones shot and killed an intruder in a West Hollywood, Calif., apartment he shared with his then-wife, Christie Wagner, an actress.

Jones made the news again in 1988, when he went into hiding in Ecuador to avoid imprisonment. He was involved in a lawsuit against five Ecuadorans who were reportedly trying to take over his business holdings in that country.

One of them brought perjury charges against Jones -- allegedly in retaliation for his questioning of their operations. Jones was tried in absentia and didn't know about his conviction until he went to Ecuador. He was rescued from the country by volunteers.

Jones had a boundless energy, said Jim Santini, a former U.S. representative and now a Washington lobbyist. In 1983 and 1984, Santini worked for Jones' law firm founded by Jones and his brother, Herbert -- then known as Jones, Jones, Close and Brown.

Santini first encountered Jones at the 1976 National Convention in New York City. Jones stayed up late networking and politicking during the entire event well after many had gone to bed, Santini said.

"He just never got tired," Santini said. "He seemed to have an unlimited number of friends and admirers and was easy to like. He had a kind of Nevada low-key personality and was so comfortable and relaxed and just settled with himself."

Jones' wife, Marilyn, who recalled Jones as "an exceptional man," survives him, as do his daughter, Joni Lee of Seattle; son, Clifford A. Jones II of Las Vegas; brother, Herb Jones of Las Vegas; several grandchildren, nephews and great nephews.

"Everybody loved Cliff," Marilyn Jones said.

Sun reporters Daniela Mohor, Ben Grove and Cy Ryan contributed to this story.