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Rod Smith

Nevadan At Work: Joe Brown; President, Jones Vargas

20 September 2004

The Las Vegas law firm of Jones Vargas, by any normal measure, is a huge success: the second-largest law firm in the fastest-growing major city in the fastest-growing state in the country.

Ironically, the firm, which has 60 attorneys on its staff, is also a victim of its own success. In days gone by, it represented most of the titans in the gaming industry in Las Vegas: Howard Hughes, the Dunes, Aladdin, Stardust and Circus Circus.

But Joe Brown, who now heads the firm, and his partners did such a good job representing Las Vegas-based clients that Wall Street gobbled those clients up.

Today, their clients' corporate successors have in-house attorneys and Jones Vargas has evolved into a more conventional law firm, not entirely unlike its cousins across the country.

A visit to Brown's office in the Howard Hughes Center underscores the importance of glitz in the world of gaming and politics in the practice of law.

Brown divides his time dashing between the Sawyer Building, where he serves on the State Boxing Commission by appointment of the governor, and his swank, but cluttered, office overlooking the lush landscaping in one of the nation's ritziest business parks.

The memorabilia commands attention. There's a hat rack with hundreds of caps from events through Las Vegas' history and a melange of Marine Corps souvenirs. There are pictures of political leaders from former Gov. and Sen. Paul Laxalt to Gov. Kenny Guinn. And, center stage, there's an autographed photograph of former President Reagan.

Brown said then-Clark County District Judge Alvin Wartman changed his life when he recruited the young law graduate to be his first clerk here in Nevada.

He says through his transition to the West, he was mentored by Laxalt and Bob Maheu, at the time the principle aide to Howard Hughes.

And Brown says his career was changed when Reagan appointed him to the U.S. Department of Justice Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, a three-member panel in Washington, D.C., that adjudicates claims by American citizens or corporations against foreign governments.

Today, Brown is the Republican National Committee representative from Nevada, and he recently mixed trips to Scotland for a quick vacation and to New York to help renominate George W. Bush for president.

Still, despite the heavy dose of politics -- and boxing, at least years ago -- Brown says the love of his professional life is still the law.

Question: Why law?

Answer: I had several, but particularly two, undergraduate professors who I admired and respected who were lawyers and they encouraged me to go to law school.

Question: What do you like most about the law?

Answer: I think it's intellectually stimulating and rewarding. You can help people. It opens doors for other interests. I've always been interested in community service and attorneys are needed on charitable boards and civic organizations.

Question: What do you like least?

Answer: I've seen a change and I'm disappointed. It's not as gentlemanly a practice as it once was. I don't like advertising. It's cheapened the practice. When I first started, a lawyer's word was his bond and that has changed somewhat.

Question: Why Las Vegas?

Answer: Because I was recruited very strongly by Judge (Alvin) Wartman. (The year) 1968 was the first year District Court judges were allowed to have clerks. He wanted a clerk from his alma mater. He called and asked who was the most adventuresome guy in the class, and the long-time secretary suggested me. After weeks of courting, my wife and I said why not -- we'd never been West before.

Question: Describe what you do.

Answer: I represent a number of clients on retainers and I handle any problems they have. A lot of that has to do with government regulation and lobbying. Over the years, I have been a gaming lawyer, a litigator, a labor lawyer, a little bit of everything. In the '70s, I did a lot of gaming law when we represented Howard Hughes and every casino on the Strip.

Then, in 1981, I was asked to serve in the Reagan administration and that changed the whole course of my practice. I was appointed to the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission of the United States. I still practiced law for the seven years, but it changed my practice because I had to be in D.C. quite a bit and I couldn't do some of the government work here. Mostly, though, I learned a lot about how government procedures worked. So I developed a practice when I got back that dealt with state government matters and lobbying.

Question: How has the gaming industry changed?

Answer: Dramatically. When I moved here, there was no doubt organized crime was involved in a lot of the hotels. We had an unsophisticated and underfunded regulatory network. We were at odds rather than working hand-in-hand with federal agencies. Over the years, I've seen the people on the staff of the gaming board get far more experienced working with federal agencies. The heads of security at the hotels are all terrific, experienced, many former-FBI agents who have very sophisticated experience in security and policy and they have continuing relationships with the agencies. That so many of the larger companies are public adds another layer of scrutiny and enforcement so the wrong people don't get involved in the industry and the customers can be assured of a fair deal when they're gambling.

One of the other major changes -- when I first practiced here, the attitude was don't give anyone a reason to walk out of the casino. So that's all there was in the industry. I had a client who wanted to build a special events center at Caesars Palace, but they just asked what in the world for. Steve Wynn deserves a lot of credit for (changing that and) making this a total experience.

Question: How important is the gaming industry today?

Answer: Much less than it used to be. That's because in the early '70s, we represented Howard Hughes -- Summa Corp. -- which had six hotels in Las Vegas and one in Reno. When we merged with Herb Jones in '73, he represented all the downtown hotels. So we did a substantial amount of gaming work. But eventually, many of those hotels were sold and became public entities. The old hotels were owned by old Las Vegas gamblers and new corporations bought them out. We were always representing the sellers and Lionel Sawyer has always represented the buyers and that's how Lionel Sawyer came into existence.

Today, we do real estate work for several of the hotels and (former) Gov. (and Jones Vargas partner Bob) Miller's practice is largely gaming. He represents several gaming entities in Las Vegas.

Question: How did you get to be boxing commissioner?

Answer: I'm the newest commissioner. I was appointed last fall by Gov. Guinn. I've always been a huge boxing fan since I was 5 years old. I boxed in the Marine Corps and in school. I wasn't very good, but I boxed. So it's something I've always wanted to do. It's a prized appointment from the governor.

Question: What's the biggest challenge for the gaming industry?

Answer: Probably the competition from California. with all the new jurisdictions that have opened up, the concern always has to be whether the competition will grow to such an extent that it harms us. So far, we're pleasantly surprised it's just generated more visitors.

Also, in today's world, one of the biggest concerns has to be security. I think if we were to have a terrorism incident in Las Vegas, it could have horrific implications for our economy.

Question: What's the biggest challenge for the community?

Answer: Managing our growth, our infrastructure, our water. I am a pro-growth person, but I believe in well-managed, balanced growth and I believe ultimately good new companies will come here. (That's important) because I believe our young people should have alternatives to the gambling industry to get into as careers.