Las Vegas Sun

November 23, 2017

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Where I Stand:

Vegas loved Gaughan. New Jersey? Not so much


Las Vegas News Bureau

Jackie Gaughan bought the El Cortez in 1963. Over the years, he had stakes in many Las Vegas casinos, but this was his love, his baby. He held onto his majority stake until 2008, selling to his longtime friend and partner Kenny Epstein.

Las Vegas and Jackie Gaughan were one and the same. One wouldn’t be the same without the other.

Jackie died earlier this week at the age of 93. Las Vegas will continue to live on, just as Jackie had always known. What all of us who knew him know, however, is that our city will live better because Jackie was here to help during its infancy and nurtured it the way any parent would for the child he loved.

There is and should be so much written about the man who has been such a significant part of this Las Vegas. What follows here is a column I wrote Dec. 4, 1986, when Jackie, like so many others who had made our city famous, tried to make his move into Atlantic City.

His welcome to New Jersey was less than respectful or responsible toward a man who helped pioneer the legal gaming business in Nevada, so I thought I should speak out. I am glad I did then and I am happy to reprint it today.

I am not happy, though, for the reason that has occasioned this column. My condolences to the entire Gaughan family.


Jackie Gaughan isn’t well thought of by the New Jersey gaming authorities.

At the risk of blowing any chance I might have of ever getting a gaming license in that state, I have to ask the following question:

Who cares?

For starters, the shareholders and directors of the Showboat’s new Atlantic City hotel care, because their gaming license seems to be teetering on the brink of Jackie’s decision whether to further associate himself with the Showboat organization.

I would also suggest that the entire Gaughan family has an interest in the whys and wherefores of the New Jersey Gaming Commission’s decision to withhold a license from the Showboat if Gaughan continues his involvement.

Beyond those two groups, who should care?

Every decent citizen in Nevada should care what is happening in New Jersey because those people have, once again, proved to the gaming industry that they are more interested in showing the world that their ability to regulate gaming is superior to that of our own Nevada authorities and that the proper control of the industry is less than a top priority.

The headline and story in the Sun recently told of New Jersey’s concern about Gaughan’s past and its reluctance to license the Showboat there because he is a stockholder and a member of the board of directors of that company. Remember, this is the same gaming body that refused to license the Hilton Hotel Corp., perhaps the most widely respected hotel chain in the world, because it didn’t like a few outspoken personalities associated with that company.

Hilton responded properly to the slap in the face. It sold its interest and said “to hell with Atlantic City.” It was Las Vegas’ gain because Barron Hilton’s energy went into expanding the successful Flamingo Hilton and the just completed Hilton Race and Sports book, the most advanced of its kind.

Click to enlarge photo

Las Vegas gaming pioneer Jackie Gaughan arrives with Alexandra Epstein, executive vice president of the El Cortez, as he celebrates his 92nd birthday with a champagne and cake celebration at the El Cortez in downtown Las Vegas, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012.

It is difficult to understand the rationale of the gaming authorities in New Jersey for not wanting the expertise of a Jackie Gaughan associated with its gaming industry. I thought a look at the investigation report would lend some basis for their decision.

I must admit, it read like the Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris book of half-truths called “The Green Felt Jungle.” There was good reason for the comparison. At least half of the report contained excerpts from that book, which has provided millions of Americans with great fiction about the Las Vegas underworld of old but is hardly what a responsible police agency would call “authoritative.”

The stories recounted much about the lives of guys like Meyer Lansky, Gus Greenbaum, Willie Alderman and others from Las Vegas’ colorful past. They didn’t mention Jackie Gaughan.

The investigators concluded, however, that since Jackie knew these guys 30 years ago and was a partner with some of them in those early days that he should be painted with the same brush that law enforcement types like to use when painting pictures of mob scenes.

The report also spent a good deal of space recounting Jackie’s friendship and business association with Benny Binion, who is as much a part of the gaming history of Las Vegas as the slot machine or a pair of dice. If being a friend of Benny’s is a criterion for denial in New Jersey, half the people there ought to pull up stakes and come home now, because you can’t have been a part of Las Vegas in the early days without knowing or dealing with Benny.

Jackie Gaughan is a proud man. My guess is he pursued licensure in New Jersey, knowing full well the outcome in advance, because he believes there is nothing in his past for which he should be ashamed. Certainly, any state that could find Barron Hilton’s company unfit to hold a license has an unrealistic view of the world and must be following an agenda different from that which it professes to embrace. And, given their prejudice toward Nevada casino operators, what chance did Gaughan really have?

By the way, nowhere in the entire 85-page report plus exhibits, did the investigators talk of Jackie Gaughan’s many contributions to the community in which he has lived since 1951. The report was an extremely biased product of an investigative division that seems more concerned with what happened 30 or 40 years ago than what has been happening since Gaughan was licensed in Nevada.

There are four decades of good works, charitable endeavors, educational benefits and other contributions to the Las Vegas community that more than offset a couple of “gambling-related” arrests in Omaha, Neb., in the 1940s. Who from his generation who came to early Las Vegas to work in legalized gaming, did not have some run-ins with the law where gambling was illegal?

The most telling example of the bias of the New Jersey gamers toward Gaughan is on Page 84 of the report. Under the heading “Mitigating circumstances, if any,” the word “none” appears.

The Nevada Gaming Commission had a chance at Jackie Gaughan just a few months ago when his purchase of a controlling interest in the Union Plaza Hotel came before them. They questioned him at length before they approved his latest purchase. But their concern differed substantially from that of the New Jersey gamers. Nevada’s gaming bodies, people who have known Gaughan and followed his 35-year career in Las Vegas on almost a daily basis, were concerned that Jackie had bitten off too much by trying to add the Union Plaza to his list of successful gaming ventures.

Once they were convinced that he would soon give up his state stewardship of the Sundance, which he has, they licensed him without objection.

There is plenty of mitigation for Jackie Gaughan’s early life on the wrong side of the illegal gambling industry in the 1940s. New Jersey closed its eyes for reasons that, at best, are questionable.

Now Jackie Gaughan must make a decision. Either way he chooses, he’ll have the support of a city that appreciates his many years of dedication to building a good name for Las Vegas and for his family.

My advice is: Don’t pay any attention to them Jackie. They’ll never be as good as Las Vegas, and that’s what really burns ’em.

Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.

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