Wednesday, May 8, 2013 | 6 p.m.
The former mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman, who is married to the current mayor, Carolyn Goodman, pulls no punches in his new book “Being Oscar” set for release May 21. Oscar is as outspoken and controversial as he was during his three terms as the chief executive of the world’s gaming and entertainment capitals.
In Part 1 posted last Friday, Oscar discussed their tender love story and 51-year marriage. Today in Part 2 of our three-part series, he tells me about his days being a lawyer to the Mob.
Next week, we’ll wrap my hours-long interview with a look at his legacy and what he wants on his epitaph at the end of his amazing life.
Why did you want to write it and bare all?
“I have always wanted to tell my stories; I guess I am a storyteller. I feel like Aesop with his fables but never had the time to tell them. I was too busy earning a living, and then being the mayor. Only when I left City Hall I found myself able to jot down notes. My wife would say, ‘You have to write a book,’ my friends would say, ‘You have to write a book.’
“My life is different than anybody else. Nobody represents mobsters and then is elected mayor of the fastest-growing city in the United States. It had the makings of something, which was interesting, and I wanted to take a try. Once I started, I may have regretted that I started because it is very, very difficult to write about one’s life and expect that it is going to be interesting to other people.
“It may be interesting to those who are close to me, but would somebody who doesn’t know me personally find it interesting? But some people have seen the galley proofs, and they say it is like sitting down with me and hearing my stories. That is exactly what I wanted to accomplish.”
Is the reticence, the regret also because it is such an extraordinary story of a man who represented the Mob on one side of the line and then on the other side of the line is protecting the public? It is a very unusual and unexpected jump of career choices?
“Absolutely correct. You learn about yourself when you write a book and, basically, life is a playing of roles as we go from plateau to plateau. Each one is different, and in order to fit in, to accomplish, to do something meaningful, you have to adjust to each plateau. And that is basically what this book taught me.”
Is this is an only-in-America and only-in-Vegas story?
“Exactly. It couldn’t happen anywhere else. First of all, I couldn’t have been the kind of lawyer I was any place else. It kept me busy for 35 years basically.”
We recognize that lawyers have to represent their clients whether they believe in their innocence or ignore their guilt.
“Not necessarily. A lawyer can say he does not want to represent somebody; it is not like a doctor with the Hippocratic Oath.”
OK. So we are all born with a conscience, whether we use it in terms of knowing what is right, what is wrong, what is good, what is bad. When this particular brand of client entered into your life, what was your life coming from a conservative household and having to represent people who were involved in some pretty, by reputation, shifty stuff?
“I didn't realize how lucky I was. It took a little bit of time. The type of person I represented, who was reputably a mobster and a bad person, was looked at with great disfavor by the public, even though there was a fascination with the Mob. When you get into court, the mobster is glorified. They had the best investigators, the best FBI agents, the best IRS agents, and the best drug enforcement agents trying to make a case against them. They brought in the best government lawyers to try to get a conviction.
“Usually judges were able to get the case as a ‘plum’ into their courtroom. So you had the best of everything that the system provides on the other side of you. It was almost like David and Goliath. I loved it. Legal problems were all a first impression. The wiretap statutes went into effect virtually when I got licensed in 1967; the first wiretap case took place, and I was involved in it. The search and seizure laws with a warrant were being liberalized; I had the opportunity to litigate them.
“All of those laws and situations and at the same time have my name in the newspaper every single day, even though it says [Anthony] Spilotro says, he never said anything, or [Frank] Rosenthal said, he said a little more than Spilotro, but I was doing the talking for them. It was very heavy stuff for a young person. It was hard work, but it was good work. I was unique because I had the best cases in the country.”
Did you take it on not necessarily because you believed in their innocence, but you believed the government was overreaching?
“Yeah, as a matter of fact, I rarely put a client on the witness stand. I didn’t want to hear from my clients as far as what they did or didn’t do because, as I say in the book, most people don’t know the definition, if they say I murdered someone, they wouldn’t know if they murdered somebody or it was manslaughter, what degree of murder it was. I use that example, and it is a good example. I tell juries this, too, that they have to listen very carefully to what I am saying. You go home now and you walk into your house and your chairs are turned over, your drawers are open, your TV is missing, you pick up the phone, you call 911, and you say I was what?”
“Wrong — you were burglarized. It is about a 15-year difference to the defendant that is charged with the offense. Burglary is entry with the intent to commit a felony, and robbery is taking something by force or threat of force. One hundred percent out of 100 percent would say robbed because that is the natural response to that. I didn’t want to hear from my clients that they did something. They only thing that I asked them was if a specific event took place at a particular time if they had an alibi.
“Could you tell me where you were at that time if you weren’t there? If they could do that, then that is something that I had to know, but other than that I put the government to the task of proving their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Invariably, I won my cases not based on anything that the defendant said or did but because of the misconduct of the government.”
Would you say you were protecting the legal system?
“Absolutely. No question about it. It was the ethics of the legal system rather than the actions of the Mob. There is no doubt at the end of the book that that is what I was doing. I felt as though I was a great American being able to protect the constitutional rights that were afforded to the citizens accused of crime in this country. Perfect example, I was with somebody you probably know this morning, and he said he was driving home from a function about two weeks ago. He gets pulled over by the police for failing to put his right turn signal on.
“Police check the information on the machine in their car, find out there is an outstanding warrant, you go into a lawyer for a parking ticket, and the lawyer says, ‘Don’t worry, I will take care of it.’ And the lawyer died, didn’t take care of the parking ticket, they arrested this guy, and he spent 15 hours in the tank with all of the miscreants surrounding him. Isn’t that something?
He said, ‘Let me pay it, let me pay it. They said, ‘Nope.’ Then they dismissed all the charges after 15 hours and kicked him out, but it’s on his record for life. That’s overreach and a light story compared to what happened to these people.”
So here is the flip — you go from fighting the government to becoming the government in the very city where the Mob reportedly thrived. That couldn’t happen anywhere.
“No place else. The new cultural center in Vegas isn’t the first time violin cases have been seen on the streets, but this time, the cases contain violins. Life is the playing of roles for a particular segment. I could have been a prosecutor as easily as a defense attorney, and I would have done it with the same kind of effort and zeal as I did defending people; I could have prosecuted them. I had that role, so it was very easy once I left the act of practice of law. I was always a lawyer, I always kept my bar membership even when I went into City Hall.
“It was not a hard transition because I took a lot of what I believed in and corrected wrongs within the system right off the bat. For instance, there was a policy my other administrations before me and the Sheriff’s Office had if somebody had a felony conviction that they wouldn’t let them have a work card. And I’m saying to myself these people have to go out and commit other crimes if they can’t be a clerk at a 7-Eleven or a server at Arizona Charlie’s. So the police and the sheriffs were used to this system, and they get up in front of me and they recommend against it.
“I said, ‘Did you talk to the potential employer and find out whether they knew that this person had a problem and were willing to employ them?’ No, we didn’t do that! And I said, ‘You better get out of here and go to the employer and tell them what this person’s problem was and ask whether they still want to hire them.’ And that’s the system we used, and I put a lot of people to work that would never been able to work based on my philosophy.”
Did your conservative family upbringing pave the way to be a lawyer, and did lawyer training prepare you to be mayor? And, if so, what quarter of life are you in?
“My dad was a lawyer, and I had a great deal of not only love and respect, but admiration for him, too. I saw him in court on one occasion that I write about in the book. Basically, I was very taken by that. You can do a lot of good as a lawyer; you can help people. But I’ve fired clients. Jay Sarno, I’m sure you’ve heard of him when he was connected with Caesars Palace in the long ago days.
“I represented him, and he was charged with bribing an IRS agent $87,000. That was the alleged bribe. Everything was recorded on a wiretap the agent was using, except the one conversation about the bribe. And Jay wanted me to use character witnesses, and Jay had a checkered history and people would say un-nice things about him. ‘I’m not going to put anyone up for you, Jay,’ and he started screaming. He had a toupee. Jay’s toupee started turning on his head, his face would get red, and the jury would look at him, he says, ‘I want witnesses, I want witnesses.’ I said, ‘Nope, nope.’
“So, finally, Jay says, ‘If you don’t put witnesses on, I’m going to fire you!’ And this is 90 percent of the way through the trial. And I said, ‘If you keep on bothering me the way you’re bothering me, and making a fool of yourself in front of the jury, I’m going to fire you!’ So that night he calls me up and says, ‘Are you going to put witnesses on?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not!’ He said, ‘Then you’re fired!’ And I said, ‘You’re fired!’ That story is not in the book, but it will be in the next one.
“Over a 40-year career as a defense attorney, I came in contact on a regular basis with people who lied, cheated and tried to bend the system so that they would come out on top. Most of them worked for the government.”
What did you think of yourself in that period of your life?
“I never thought of myself as a hero, but what I wrote about, the various things that I did, and how I did so many things at one time, just juggling one ball after the other and doing it halfway successfully, I said, ‘You know, that’s pretty good.’ When you’re doing it all, it is hard work — there is responsibility and tension on you. You realize what a trial took out of me, and I was doing one after another with no in between, so to speak.
“I saw myself regressed to the point where I began not to like myself because after Spilotro got killed, there was so much, I didn’t realize how much time I spent keeping him out of trouble, one trial after another, one city after another, one fight after another. Then when he’s not there anymore, it didn’t matter how much business I had, it didn’t fill that void, and the cases were becoming almost rote, and the prosecutors and defense used to joke about it. They say you could drop Oscar anyplace, and he’ll try the case the same way.
“That is true because I tried the government, and it was the case the same way, and I found myself one day going to the office and saying, ‘How much can I charge today?’ Instead of how much good can I do? And it became a contest with myself, ‘Can I get a million for a case, can I get a million and a half for the case? Can I get 2 million for the case?’
“To be honest with you, I’m comfortable, but I wasn’t liking myself because I wasn’t doing it for the reason that I wanted to do it. So that’s when I said to Carolyn and the kids, I’ve got to do something different because I just don’t like what I’m doing now. And that’s when I decided to run for mayor. A lot of people won’t believe that, but it’s true. I was really having a quall with myself, and when you write about it you, define yourself. It is a catharsis.”
In the final part of our interview next week, Oscar is candid about his achievements — and failures — as mayor: “I enjoyed being mayor of Las Vegas for 12 years, but I think I would have preferred a different title: benevolent dictator. I could have gotten more done.”
Weinstein Books is releasing “Being Oscar” on May 21. Then on May 23, Oscar throws a dual launch party, first at his steakhouse Oscar’s at the Plaza, then continuing to the nearby Mob Museum.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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