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September 1, 2014

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Who is George Chanos? — The Man

It happened one night after the fights.

Ronald Wright had just defeated Felix Trinidad in a World Boxing Council middleweight elimination bout at the MGM Grand on May 14 when Las Vegas attorney Joe Brown wandered into the resort's Italian restaurant, Fiamma.

Brown, a Republican national committeeman, ran into fellow Las Vegas attorney George Chanos, who was there with his wife, Adriana, and cousin James Chanos, a New York-based hedge fund operator.

Brown had known George Chanos for nearly 10 years because of legal work they did for the Nevada Republican Party and through mutual interests in business litigation.

"I went up to him and said, 'George, it's time you stop making so much damn money and serve the state,"' Brown said. "I said, 'We need a good attorney general and the governor told me to find somebody. It's time you step up.'

"I was only half-teasing, when 20 to 30 minutes later, George pulled up a chair alongside me and said, 'Are you serious?' "

Within 10 days George Chanos met with Gov. Kenny Guinn. Months passed until Oct. 31, when Guinn appointed the relatively unknown Chanos to succeed Brian Sandoval as Nevada's attorney general. With Sandoval accepting a position as a federal judge, Guinn had been looking for an electable Republican who could win a full four-year term this November.

Brown thinks Chanos is that individual.

"He's electable because he's very qualified as an attorney and he's very personable," Brown said. "He meets people well, and he has an intelligent and beautiful wife."

Until Guinn's announcement, the 47-year-old Chanos had seldom been in the public eye.

If anything, his wife enjoyed higher profile positions as a member of both the Nevada Taxicab Authority and Nevada Public Utilities Commission before becoming the state's consumer advocate.

But in no time Chanos, a veteran business attorney and former UNLV student body president, made a big splash.

"I've already seen enough of myself on TV and in the newspaper," Chanos said, good humoredly. "I don't need to see any more of myself."

First, without relying on input from the Clark County district attorney's office, he announced a probe into the Royal Links Golf Course land deal involving developer Bill Walters and Las Vegas City Hall.

Then Chanos hired a special counsel to lead the investigation, revealing that he had a potential conflict of interest because he was involved in his own land deal before the City Council.

He later declared invalid a new state law aimed at giving Nevadans the opportunity to buy lower-cost drugs from Canada. His opinion landed him in hot water with one of the law's chief supporters, Assembly Majority Leader Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, with whom he traded unflattering barbs in a recent televised appearance on "Face to Face With Jon Ralston."

The state Pharmacy Board on Thursday voted 4-to-2 to go ahead with the drug program, although Chanos suggested that the Nevada Legislature convene a special session to rewrite the law.

The path that led Chanos to one of Nevada's highest governmental posts began in his early childhood.

A native of Wauwatosa, Wis., a Milwaukee suburb, Chanos is of Greek ancestry. His father was in sales with the chemical company BASF and his mother was a fashion model for newspapers and magazines. He has two older sisters.

His parents divorced when he was only 1 year old, and throughout his childhood he bounced back and forth between his father in Wisconsin and his mother in Las Vegas.

"When I was 5 or 6 years old John Kennedy got assassinated," Chanos said. "And I was in the car with my mother, and I will never forget the moment when it came over the radio. My mother pulled the car to the side of the road and started to cry. And it had an impact on me.

"So I had watched the television coverage that had occurred afterward about the assassination and I learned about politics ... for the first time. It just intrigued me as something that was important and that this man was important and that people loved this man, and so I wanted to be like this man when I was very young."

He graduated from Valley High School in Las Vegas, where he participated on the school's debate team and co-chaired the city's Constitutional Congress -- a 1976 Bicentennial event -- that drafted the constitution and bylaws used by all Las Vegas high schools.

After graduating from UNLV in 1981 with a bachelor's degree in psychology, Chanos went to Washington for a six-month internship with then-Sen. Paul Laxalt, R-Nev.

It was a time when Congress was embroiled in Abscam, an FBI sting operation that resulted in convictions of one senator and four House members for bribery.

"My first formative impression of politics was this is something I want to do, and my second formative impression was, I don't want to be like them," he said of the scandal targets. "I didn't want to be ethically challenged, and I didn't ever want to be put in a position where my integrity might be compromised.

"As a 20-year-old I made another decision, which was that I would not go into politics unless and until I had arrived at a point in my life where I could sit across the table from any individual and say, 'I'd love to have your support, but I don't need your money. And if you're looking for something in return for your support, you're talking to the wrong guy.' "

His cousin James considers George Chanos a brother. The two are partners in the pending downtown land deal before the City Council that prompted Chanos to declare a potential conflict of interest in the Royal Links investigation.

"George is one of the most ethical, hard-working persons I know," James Chanos said. "He's someone you can trust implicitly when he gives you his word, and he will not put politics before ethics.

"He's very serious. It's not a stretch to say that George is ambitious, but all great politicians are. He's really motivated by right and wrong. He's intellectually curious. When he wants to know something, he wants to learn."

A 1985 graduate of the University of San Diego School of Law, Chanos began his career as a business litigator with three separate law firms in San Diego. By his early 30s he was pulling down six-figure annual salaries and had become an authority in negotiation and dispute resolution.

Inspired by the wild success of the game Trivial Pursuit in the 1980s, he took a break from the practice of law in the early 1990s to produce and market Notable Quotables, a board game he invented in which players must match quotes with their famous authors.

His largest investor was billionaire Alex Spanos, owner of the San Diego Chargers football team. With a big assist from the $225,000 he received from Spanos, Chanos produced 50,000 copies and sold it through his own game company.

"I had collected quotes as a hobby, and I decided that if there was a national fad that could be created out of trivia that there was probably a fairly strong pre-existing market for quotations," Chanos said. "But I knew it couldn't be your run-of-the-mill quotations. The quotations would have to be witty, profound, outrageous, something very compelling about the quotations to make a board game."

After the game's success, he resumed his own law practice in San Diego.

Chanos and his Colombian-born wife -- a former deputy city attorney in San Diego whom he had first met in kindergarten and began dating in college -- moved back to Las Vegas in 1995 and opened a joint law practice.

"I've always been impressed with what a good lawyer he is," Brown said. "He's extremely bright and conscientious. He's a bulldog. He's a lawyer who represents his clients to the hilt aggressively.

"He'll be different from our past two attorneys general, Frankie Sue Del Papa and Brian Sandoval, because he will be more hands-on with cases that come before his office."

Court records show that Chanos was a busy litigator but one who rarely got involved in cases that generated publicity. His clients included Harrah's Las Vegas Inc. and Hotel Ramada of Nevada Inc.

But most of his business clients were contractors, developers, partnerships and small businesses little known to the public. Examples included Metroflag Polo LLC, Summerlin Hotel Property LLC, Shahram Inc. and Jazzy Products Inc. His foes in litigation were equally eclectic, ranging from the Las Vegas City Council to Republic Silver State Disposal Inc. to Father Flanagan's Boys' Home.

The only substantial media attention Chanos received in Las Vegas prior to becoming attorney general occurred in the late 1990s when he did legal work representing the Nevada Republican Party. As he began attending GOP functions, including Clark County Central Committee meetings, he made valuable political contacts.

Carson City resident Chuck Muth, former communications consultant for the state GOP, said his recollection of Chanos in those days was of "a guy who was a really sharp lawyer with conservative credentials who had an interest in politics."

When Chanos did legal work for the state party, he "explained things in a way we could understand," said Muth, who now runs Citizen Outreach, a public policy organization dedicated to limited government.

"If he gets elected to a full term as attorney general, his future is bright," Muth said. "He has all the potential in the world to be a gubernatorial candidate or congressional candidate down the road."

Chanos was chosen to do legal work for the Clark County GOP in 1997, but that affiliation was short-lived. He resigned to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest after Adriana was appointed to the Taxicab Authority. One of the taxicab conglomerates regulated by the authority, Yellow Checker Star, is owned by Milton Schwartz, a longtime Chanos friend who at the time was chairman of the county GOP and who said he has known Chanos "since he was a baby."

"Adriana and I have worked far too hard to develop our reputations for honesty and integrity, and no position is worth our enduring even the innuendo of impropriety," Chanos wrote to Schwartz.

When he represented the state GOP in 1998, Chanos fought unsuccessfully to get an initiative on the November 1998 general election ballot that would have required unions to get written permission from their members to spend money on campaign contributions and lobbying. Organized labor was bitterly opposed to the concept.

Although the proposed initiative received 60,000 signatures of support from a petition drive, the issue of whether the measure was constitutional wound up in District Court.

"You are being asked to disenfranchise voters ... based on specious arguments of federal election impairment and contract impairment and freedom of assembly," Chanos told the judge in June 1998. It was to no avail. The judge ruled the initiative unconstitutional.

But Chanos still believes the idea has merit, noting that it has been supported by several other court decisions nationwide.

Chanos added to his professional resume in 1998 by becoming chairman of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates limited government and free enterprise. He said he took the one-year position to support its intellectual research and publication "concerning issues that are important to Nevada." But he also stressed that he did not necessarily agree with all of its positions or those expressed by the then-monthly publication's writers.

"I would encourage a liberal Democratic think tank to publish something similar," he said. "The idea of having people thinking about the issues and writing about the issues is what is valuable."

Chanos insists he does not have a partisan political philosophy that he would infuse into the attorney general's office. Over time, he said, "people will come to understand that I am not a partisan animal."

"I don't adopt the entire Republican Party philosophy or platform either," Chanos said. "There are certain issues that are espoused by the Democratic Party that I also share. I don't consider myself a partisan politician. I would like to approach problem-solving in a bipartisan manner without regard to party philosophy.

"Frankly, I think that the fringes on both sides of the political spectrum do a disservice to the process. I believe that most rational, intelligent people look at issues more objectively from the center, and that's where I generally find myself looking at issues."

His first stab at a major issue while attorney general, however, has caused an uproar among politicians, seniors and physicians' associations. That was his decision late last year that a new state law aimed at allowing Nevadans to import lower-cost drugs from Canada was invalid, a decision based on his opinion that the law requires drugs to be approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration. And Chanos has said the FDA would not approve Nevada's plan.

The Nevada State Democratic Party issued a press release claiming "Chanos Puts Seniors Last" and Buckley criticized him for what she believes is his misinterpretation of the law. The state Pharmacy Board sided last week with Buckley.

Chanos said he believes the state law would pass muster -- and gain his approval -- if it simply stated that drugs imported from Canada were to be approved by the Pharmacy Board, rather than by the FDA. This view is consistent with his position as an advocate of states' rights, he said.

"If people were to say, and people have said, that I am somehow supportive of the pharmaceutical industry, I would say in response that I think it's a national disgrace that Americans are forced to go to Canada or even consider going to Canada to get affordable prescription drugs," Chanos said.

"I believe that's a failure on the part of our federal government. I believe that is a failure not only of this administration but of past administrations to allow this condition to exist.

Chanos uses the same defense of states' rights to oppose efforts by the federal government to ship high-level nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. And he says states' rights is also the reason he supports, over the objections of the federal government, voter-approved marijuana for medicinal purposes.

He also supports a proposal to split up the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals so that Nevada is separated from the same appellate court that has jurisdiction over California. Nevada conservatives have argued that the 9th Circuit is the most liberal in the nation and not reflective of the views of most Nevadans.

Away from the office, Chanos toils as an artist who has his own Web site, chanosgalleries.com. The dozens of pieces offered for sale range from "Wallflowers" -- a 16-foot-by-5-foot acrylic painting on canvas with a $10,000 price tag -- to a limited edition print with only the words "Yes" and "No" that is available for $50.

When Chanos was named attorney general, his wife resigned as the state's consumer advocate, which is under the attorney general's jurisdiction. She is now a stay-at-home mother, rearing their 8-year-old daughter, Alexandra.

In his bid to seek a full four-year term as attorney general during November's general election, Chanos will play up his business litigation background.

One Democrat who has declared her candidacy for the post is Catherine Cortez Masto, a former federal criminal prosecutor who was a chief of staff to former Democratic Gov. Bob Miller and also served as an assistant Clark County manager.

Chanos said his business litigation background is a strength because about 95 percent of the business conducted by the attorney general relates to civil, rather than criminal, matters.

"Having 20 years of experience as a business lawyer dealing with significant business issues provides a huge advantage to anyone occupying this office," he said.

Masto, not surprisingly, has a different perspective. Before spending taxpayers' money to hire a special prosecutor in the Royal Links case, she argues, it would have been better to first determine whether the Nevada Division of Investigation or any district attorney in the state would have been willing to lead the investigation.

She also faults Chanos for his actions on the Canadian drug issue, saying she is not convinced that he did all he could to work with legislators before rendering his opinion on the subject.

"It just comes down to his inexperience," Masto said. "It's not about being a lone ranger. You have to work within the system to achieve results. But he has already alienated everyone from the sheriff to the district attorney to the Legislature."

Chanos, though, says he has stayed true to the guiding tenets he carried into the attorney general's office.

"I made a couple of promises to myself when I took this job," he said. "One, that I would speak truthfully. Two, that I would interpret the law accurately. And three, that I would enforce the law fairly."

Steve Kanigher can be reached at 259-4075 or at [email protected]

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