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Gaming Guru

Jeff German

Cops knew of counseling service

21 September 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The counseling company raided this week in an extortion investigation had run its business plans past Metro Police several times in the past two years, and in 2007 a uniformed department spokesman even briefly starred in the company's marketing video.

"I never heard a negative thing about it. I thought I was doing a great thing for the community," the owner of the company, Steven Brox, told the Sun on Thursday.

Two days earlier Metro detectives had spent about eight hours searching the office of Brox's United States Justice Associates, 1212 South Casino Center Blvd., for records and other material connected to a moneymaking program authorities now say amounted to an end-run around the justice system.

Brox's program worked like this: When casino security guards detained people on misdemeanor charges — such as trespassing, disorderly conduct and petty theft — they would attempt to route the detainees into the program as an alternative to calling police to arrest them. While the people were detained, they were shown a video that presented them with the "option" of enrolling in the program to avoid a criminal record. The detainees were charged $500 to enroll, and Brox paid $100 to the casinos for each person who completed the program.

In spring 2007, Brox was able to get one of the department's public information officers, Jose Montoya, to appear as the program's spokesman on the video Brox intended to use to pitch the program — until Sheriff Doug Gillespie saw the video and instructed the department not to become involved in the private enterprise.

Brox said he replaced Montoya with an actor, and then distributed the video to casinos in his effort to recruit the people detained on the minor charges.

Brox showed the Sun copies of both videos, and they use the same script. He said the production company simply superimposed the actor over Montoya on the video.

Police now say in court documents that the video was "very threatening" toward program participants because it implies that people being detained will go to jail if they don't enroll and complete the program.

Brox, however, said the program provided a service to not just the casinos but the police, their overcrowded jail and the overloaded court system. He said his confidence in the legality of the program was bolstered by the support of District Judge Doug Smith who, as a Las Vegas justice of the peace, had endorsed his company's efforts.

Smith was interviewed this week by detectives investigating United States Justice Associates, which has been offering counseling programs through the court system for a decade.

Gillespie acknowledged this week that he didn't consider the content of the company's video threatening when he reviewed it two years ago, but he also said he didn't think it was appropriate for the police department to play a role in the video.

"I just got the impression this would be used as something that we, as a police department, would be saying 'use this program,' and I didn't think that was our place to be doing that," Gillespie said.

Deputy Chief Greg McCurdy, who is overseeing the just-started criminal investigation, said Montoya also had concerns about how he was portrayed in the video and wrote a letter in May 2007 asking the company to remove him. About the same time, Metro's legal counsel sent United States Justice Associates a letter instructing the company not to involve the department in the program, McCurdy said.

But Brox said that in the weeks after he had met with Gillespie, he showed the video with the superimposed actor to at least two ranking Metro officers — Capt. Charles Hank, who handles police operations on the Strip, and Vice Lt. Karen Hughes. Neither officer had a problem with it, and Hank even voiced support for the diversion program at a casino security chiefs meeting, Brox said.

McCurdy confirmed that Brox had talked to both Hank and Hughes about the program, but the deputy chief said both officers told a police lieutenant that they didn't express any approval of it to Brox.

"They met with him, but did not voice an opinion or do anything that should be taken as an endorsement," McCurdy said, adding that Hank also told the lieutenant that he did not speak in support of the program at a security chiefs meeting.

McCurdy said he could not explain why police didn't investigate United States Justice Associates two years ago. He said detectives became interested in the case this week after they spoke to a security chief at Planet Hollywood.

In an affidavit to obtain a warrant to search the office of United States Justice Associates, detectives said the security chief, Calvin Abercrombie, was concerned about Planet Hollywood's participation in the program.

Brox said the police raid has basically shut down his business because detectives seized his computers and records, and that has left clients in limbo.

The raid occurred a week after the district attorney's office filed a six-count criminal complaint against Brox, stemming from the alleged sexual assault of one of his relatives, a 15-year-old girl.

Brox, who said he expects to be "exonerated" on the sex charges, would not comment on the timing of the two actions.

Before the raid, United States Justice Associates had business arrangements with several other casino companies, including neighborhood gaming giants Boyd Gaming Group and Station Casinos, Brox said.

Boyd Gaming spokesman David Strow said his company had not signed a contract with Brox.

"We were in the process of determining how and when their services would be used," Strow said.

Station Casinos spokeswoman Lori Nelson said her company no longer does business with United States Justice Associates.

"We have used this company on an occasional basis, but we recently stopped using their services," Nelson said.