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Rod Smith

Nevadan At Work: Peter Bernhard, Chairman, Nevada Gaming Commission

14 October 2003

NEVADA -- Nevada Gaming Commission Chairman Peter Bernhard says he isn't competitive except with himself.

"I don't want to beat anyone else. I only want to meet or beat my own expectations of what I can do," he said. "I didn't want to look back and wonder if I could make it at Harvard."

But the prestigious diplomas and honors on the walls of his Hughes Center law office, the panoramic views and mahogany furnishings more than hint at competitiveness.

Family photos with fond memories line the walls, two of which are of him and of his son playing baseball at Harvard College, where they both went. He's quick to point out they are the only father-son baseball team captains at Harvard. Ever.

The top regulator of the top industry in Nevada and a partner in the Las Vegas legal powerhouse Bernhard & Bradley has to know the corridors of power and how to pull strings to get public policies and private agreements moving.

His personal life and humility, however, give him the balance he needs for perspective in his sometimes rough-and-tumble workplace environments.

In a way, his recreation is all about balance. He spends most of his leisure time riding a tandem bicycle.

"My wife and I are celebrating our 10th year of tandem cycling, beginning when she lost most of her central vision because of a congenital disease," Bernhard said. "She's legally blind and unable to read or drive, so she provides the power, while I steer and shift as we ride throughout the valley."

The couple, married 31 years, has also cycled in Washington, Idaho, California, Utah, Ohio, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

"Our best trip was to New England, where we rode the Minuteman Trail between Boston and Concord and toured Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket Island. And, yes, all sports are my hobby, but tandem cycling is at the top of the list," he said.

Bernhard is a complex character handling complex issues for Nevadans.

Question: Why did you go into law?

Answer: I got a lot of encouragement from high school teachers, especially to love academics and go as far as possible, and similar advice to get a professional degree. I took a course in constitutional law as an undergraduate at Harvard and became enthralled in the field of law. I found the field of law to be a fascinating and challenging three-year education.

Question: How did you choose public service?

Answer: I'd represented several clients before the Ethics Commission in the 1990s and believe the statutes and programs could be strengthened to be fair to the public and public office holders. I spoke with candidate (Kenny) Guinn in 1998. And, after he was elected governor, he said, "OK, if you think it can be changed, how would you change it?" I agreed to take on the office when the governor asked.

Question: And the move to gaming regulator?

Answer: First, I'd heard of it was when (Review-Journal reporter) Jane Ann Morrison called me. I'd known her since I was a law clerk. She said my name had been floated to replace Brian Sandoval, who was running for attorney general. After thinking about it and recognizing the importance of the gaming industry and regulation of the industry for the benefit of the state, I saw it as a challenging position and one in which I'd be interested in serving. I met with Governor Guinn to discuss the challenges facing the industry at that time -- it was right after Sept. 11, 2001, and amid the downturn in tourism -- and believed my strengths could qualify me to serve as chairman of the commission. And the governor appointed me.

Question: What's your main responsibility?

Answer: My job as chairman of the commission is to make sure all matters that come before us are handled fairly and impartially for people who appear in front of us. The public policy is to protect the integrity of the gaming industry through strict, fair and consistent regulation. The commission itself bears the primary responsibility for policies as well as final decisions on license applications and disciplinary proceedings so we can direct the board, the staff and the industry on issues which arise.

Question: What was your biggest challenge?

Answer: At the inception, it was to learn the procedures and substantive issues. There wasn't a lot of lead time. Immediately on my appointment, we were faced with Internet gaming issues and the salon gaming issue. It required a lot of study to get up to speed on where the industry was, where it wanted to go and what regulatory issues had to be considered.

More recently, the challenges have been to project into the future to see where gaming regulation needs to go given the tremendous changes in technology and the changes happening on casino floors and in back office operations.

Question: What do you like best?

Answer: I enjoy the intellectual policy debates with other members of the control board and the commission. We don't always agree, but we can exchange ideas with the common goal that Nevada remains the place with the most respected regulatory system in the world.

Question: What do you like least?

Answer: The least enjoyable part is the lack of time to spend on Gaming Commission matters because the area can be so absorbing; I could spend 80 hours a week studying and reading about the industry throughout the world. It's the feeling I could always use more time to become more knowledgeable about the responsibilities we have.

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

Answer: To remain competitive in a marketplace affected by so many external events such as Sept. 11, 2001, and the increasing competition not just for the gaming dollar but the entertainment dollar.

The challenges include Indian gaming, the revitalization of markets such as downtown Reno and downtown Las Vegas and the ability to regulate effectively in these changing markets.

I believe the gambling industry itself needs to have the vision to look longer term and find ways to meet consumer demands. The regulator's role is to provide a framework to protect the state's interest while allowing the industry to be creative.