Friday, March 19, 2004 | 11:08 a.m.
A couple of hundred Southern Nevadans concerned about sexually suggestive billboards showed up at Thursday's Nevada Gaming Commission meeting, hoping their anger about the larger-than-life ads inspires regulators to reign in casino billboard excess.
The gaming commission is the part-time, five-member panel that writes the state's gaming rules, has the ultimate authority to grant or deny gaming licenses and serves as the judge when licensees face discipline.
And it's the commission's power to rule on disciplinary complaint settlements or to serve as judge and jury for contested disciplinary complaints that spurred many of those who attended the Sawyer State Office Building hearing to do so.
Several of them said they were there to support the commission's efforts to clean up casino billboards. Ironically, the commission has taken no action to date disciplining casinos for racy advertising, although the panel did approve a $100,000 fine the Hard Rock agreed to pay in 2002 to settle a Gaming Control Board complaint that the property allowed patrons to engage in sex acts in a hotel nightclub.
When the commission levied the fine, panel member Art Marshall criticized the property's ads and said the fine should be much bigger. Other commission members joined in the general harrumphing, but in the end voted to approve the fine.
The Hard Rock now faces a different Control Board complaint, one that includes charges that the property failed to exercise necessary discretion in a couple of billboard ads.
One ad cited in the complaint showed the upper half of a nude woman covering her nipples with a pair of dice, accompanied by the pitch, "We sell used dice." A second showed the bottom half of a woman's legs, with a pair of lacy panties around her ankles, next to the rodeo-season pitch "Get ready to buck all night."
The Hard Rock two weeks ago filed an answer to the complaint, challenging the state's authority to regulate the content of the ads on First Amendment grounds.
If the Hard Rock and the Control Board aren't able to settle the complaint, the commission would hold a trial-like hearing to decide whether to levy a fine of as much as $300,000 and whether to revoke or limit the Paradise Road property's gaming license.
Many of the 200 to 300 people who attended the 9:30 a.m. hearing were mothers, and several brought their kids along.
The big crowd was there to support a handful of foes of suggestive billboards who were waiting to address the commission during the public comment section.
But by the time the commission finished with most of its routine matters, almost two-and-a-half hours later, there were only a few dozen billboard watchers left.
(Many of the mothers with kids left well before, their zeal to clean up the city's streetscape overwhelmed by the challenge of sitting with kids watching a bureaucratic hearing for that length of time.)
Carole Gates of Henderson cited the Hard Rock billboards as well as ads for New York-New York's Zumanity show, Bally's and the Palms.
"These (images) are those I might find in a Hugh Hefner-owned publication," she said, apparently avoiding saying the name "Playboy."
Gates, selected as national young mother of the year by American Mothers, Inc., the 70-year-old group that officially sponsors Mothers Day and also opposes pornography, said that as she travels the nation she is peppered with questions about Las Vegas' suitability as a place to bring up children.
She's always defended the valley as a wonderful place to raise kids, but in the last few months a rash of new, "pornographic" billboards began to make her question whether her belief in Las Vegas was warranted.
American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada General Counsel Allen Lichtenstein attended the hearing and said the advocacy group would oppose regulators' censoring casino ads, even ads that offend people with kids.
He suggested that those opposed to suggestive casino advertising picket the offending casinos, exercising their own free speech rights.
"The fact that some speech offends some people is insufficient grounds for censorship," Lichtenstein said. "The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that, even with a privileged license like gaming and liquor, the right to ban the activity does not include the right to censor non-false, non-misleading advertising regarding legal activity."
But Lichtenstein's straightforward defense of the First Amendment rights of businesses didn't persuade many of the anti-sexy-billboard folks.
The Rev. Larry Kincaid told commission members that parents can't drive around town without seeing pornography masquerading as advertising.
"You know, deep down in your heart, that there is a problem here," Kincaid told the panel. "The problem is plain to see. Just look up at those nasty billboards. What you see in pictures remains imprinted on the brain. I don't think you want our children recalling those images over and over and over."
The commission is prohibited by state law from taking action on matters introduced during the public comment section of its monthly agenda, but several commission members said they appreciated the turnout of concerned citizens.
"I understand why they're concerned," Marshall said. "Of course, I understand the (ACLU's) First Amendment concerns as well."
North Las Vegas mom Karren Hitchcock brought daughter Ashley, 6, and son Zachary, 6 months, to the meeting because she wants gaming regulators to understand why she's offended by "the indecency of the billboards.
"We try to teach our children modesty and decency, but everywhere you look, even on the casino ads, there's pornography," said Hitchcock, who also has a teenage son and daughter. "I hope (the commission) will tell the casinos to advertise in a way that's family-friendly."
The public comment period came after the commission dealt with a few high-profile agenda items.
Commissioner Augie Gurrola was absent; four commissioners were present.
In Thursday action the commission:
The Plaza, Las Vegas Club, Western and Gold Strike hotel-casinos are part of Barrick's $82 million deal to buy most of Gaughan's downtown assets, including seven undeveloped acres south of the Plaza and nearly six square blocks near the Western.
Barrick officials said those who expect the company to cut staff are wrong. The company plans to add workers, including customer service and marketing employees, as well as housekeepers, engineers and porters.
The $1 million deal included a $663,000 fine and $337,000 in expense reimbursement, settling charges that The Venetian bosses rigged three 2002 promotional contests as well as a laundry list of other charges that included serious casino cage compliance failures.
Commission Chairman Pete Bernhard and panel member Marshall both told the Control Board that they wished the board had handled the rigged contest matter more quickly, that the issue was important enough that it be separated from the other compliance issues addressed in the complaint.
"This is the kind of issue that cries out (for speedy treatment," Bernhard said. "This is the most serious issue I've seen since I've been on the commission."
Bernhard joined the panel in 2001.
The Control Board voted 2-1 two weeks ago to recommend Bloch's licensure, but member Scott Scherer opposed the recommendation, citing a nearly 20-year-old loan application as evidence of the Texas real estate developer's questionable ethics.
Bloch's lawyer Frank Schreck, a former commission member, bristled at commissioners who asked whether Bloch inappropriately failed on the application to list as an asset a couple of million dollars he parked in an offshore trust for his children.
When Bernhard said Bloch was able to use the funds as his personal piggy bank, Schreck fumed.
"I'm able to borrow a lot of money from the bank, but when I do a statement I don't list the bank's assets," Schreck analogized.
Bloch persuaded the commission to back his license without imposing any limitations by explaining how he used the money: to pay back creditors even though he was reeling from losses suffered during the '80s savings-and-loan and Texas real-estate collapse.
Bernhard complimented Bloch and at the same time slammed his lawyer.
"What persuaded me were Mr. Bloch's comments," Bernhard said. "I have a lot of respect for Mr. Schreck's legal abilities but, frankly, sometimes I have a hard time listening to him."