Sunday, March 12, 2006 | 7:22 a.m.
Dario Herrera always stood out - bright, handsome, articulate and a bit on the brash side.
For much of his brief political life, his public radiance chased away the shadows of his real life.
Terry Lamuraglia noticed Herrara's flair when he first met him at a Christmas party at the home of a UNLV political science professor in 1995.
Herrera, 22, had just obtained his political science degree with honors from UNLV and planned to seek public office.
"The guy worked the room better than anyone I had ever seen," said Lamuraglia, a former firefighter and union leader, who was in his second year as Clark County's influential lobbyist.
"He was soaking everything up. This was someone who knew where he was going and what he wanted."
But Herrera's other desires got the best of him.
On Tuesday he's scheduled to stand trial in federal court on corruption charges stemming from his four-year term on the Clark County Commission that ended in January 2003.
And Lamuraglia - who's still employed by the county, but no longer as its lobbyist - is preparing to testify against the once-promising politician he still considers his friend.
"I love him. I miss him. And I'm going to hurt him," Lamuraglia said. "This is extremely stressful to my personal life, to my professional life and to my public life."
Fourteen months after that Christmas party in 1995, Lamuraglia found himself working closely with Herrera at the Legislature, where the Miami-born son of Cuban immigrants was serving as the state's youngest-ever elected Assemblyman.
Two years later that relationship was cemented when a 25-year-old Herrera became the youngest-ever elected member of the County Commission. In 2001 Herrera was elected chairman, making him one of the most powerful public officials in the state.
With his good looks, charm, incredible memory for names and passion for the downtrodden, Herrera was the darling of the Democratic Party, catching the eye of Sen. Harry Reid and other party stalwarts. He was on the fast-track.
No one in county government was closer to Herrera than Lamuraglia, a political veteran 19 years his senior. The two men regularly ate lunch or dinner together. Sometimes they made late-night visits to topless clubs, where Herrera's political stature was well-known.
It was Lamuraglia who saw the underside of Herrera's golden boy image - the immaturity and sometimes recklessness - that the public and Democratic Party regulars rarely saw.
And it was Lamuraglia, now a 51-year-old senior manager in the county Parks and Recreation Department, who was there when Herrera's political career came crashing down.
Lamuraglia has been preparing the past couple of weeks for his testimony in the case, which also includes former County Commissioner Mary Kincaid-Chauncey as a defendant. Though he is a prosecution witness, he has been interviewed by both sides.
The two defendants are charged with accepting cash and other gifts from former topless club owner Michael Galardi in exchange for votes and other actions that benefitted Galardi's nightclubs.
The charges were filed in November 2003, a year after Herrera lost a bid for Congress. During that campaign and through much of his term as a commissioner, the FBI secretly investigated him and other politicians it believed were taking cash under the table from Galardi. The government has thousands of hours of court-approved wiretaps to back up its case.
Herrera declined comment for this story, but those close to him insisted that he did not promote Galardi's agenda at the County Commission and that his defense will punch holes in the government's case.
Herrera's New York lawyer Jerry Bernstein would not comment on what Lamuraglia has to say about Herrera. But Bernstein called Galardi a "proven liar" with ample reason to exaggerate claims. "The government has a lot of wiretaps, but I don't think they have evidence that Dario Herrera's vote was for sale," Bernstein said.
In interviews with the Sun, Lamuraglia said prosecutors and FBI agents have questioned him at length about Herrera's colorful lifestyle, including his boasts of sexual exploits outside his marriage.
"He was always running from himself," Lamuraglia said. "He never left anything behind."
To Lamuraglia and other county officials who worked closely with Herrera, he appeared to live beyond his means.
He drove luxury cars and wore designer clothing and tailored suits. Though Herrera didn't drink a lot, Lamuraglia said, he enjoyed sipping the finest scotch.
Those close to Herrera said that together, Herrera and his second wife, Emily, a real estate agent, had a combined income of nearly $200,000. Herrera's end came from his $46,000 a year county commissioner's salary and work for various public relations and advertising firms.
In a federal financial disclosure form Herrera filed when he ran for Congress in 2002, he listed the couple's income as $185,000 the previous year.
Records show the Herreras took out a $261,000 construction loan in January 2000 to build their dream home. But by the time the 2,847-square-foot home was ready, Herrera needed to borrow Lamuraglia's Macy's credit card to pay for $16,000 in furniture.
Lamuraglia said he reluctantly agreed after Herrera promised to pay off the charges in a timely manner.
Several months later, however, another $6,000 mysteriously was charged on the Macy's card. "That really made me angry," Lamuraglia said. "I was mad at him for a long time."
Eventually, Lamuraglia said, Herrera and his wife started giving him cash and paid the bill in full.
Lamuraglia told the FBI he believed Herrera's irresponsibile behavior resulted from the lack of a "male role model or father." His father abandoned Herrera's family when he was 2 years old.
Herrera's double life included reported sexual exploits and late-night jaunts to topless clubs. Federal authorities allege in the indictment that Galardi paid for more than $1,500 in lap dances and alcoholic drinks for Herrera and his guests on at least two occasions in 2001 and 2002 - and that those services were not reported by Herrera on his financial disclosure statements.
On March 15, 2001, the indictment alleges, Herrera received $400 in lap dances from a stripper at one of Galardi's clubs, Cheetahs.
Lamuraglia said he accompanied Herrera on four or five of his topless club runs between 2000 and 2001 - either at Cheetahs or clubs not owned by Galardi, such as Crazy Horse Too and Olympic Gardens - and never saw Herrera pay for anything.
Usually, Herrera and his entourage, which often included other elected officials and political insiders, would enter the topless clubs through a back entrance, Lamuraglia told the Sun.
Lamuraglia said he picked up the tab sometimes.
"Herrera would sometimes make a telephone call and then tell everyone it was all 'taken care of,' meaning the group wouldn't have to pay," an FBI report of Lamuraglia's interviews with agents said .
On one of those occasions, Lamuraglia said, Herrera boasted about getting oral sex from a dancer.
He told FBI agents that the incident occurred at the Crazy Horse Too topless club, owned by Rick Rizzolo, who is being investigated by the FBI on suspicion of racketeering unrelated to the Herrera case.
"Herrera went into the VIP room there and later told Lamuraglia that he received (oral sex)," the report said.
Lamuraglia said Herrera, though married with a young son, often bragged about having sexual liaisons.
The indictment alleges that Galardi paid for a golf outing for Herrera in the spring of 2001 in which the county commissioner received sexual favors from a Cheetahs dancer.
Lamuraglia told the Sun that Herrera frequently talked and met with former County Commissioner Lance Malone, the Galardi lobbyist who prosecutors allege served as Galardi's bagman.
"He used to say, 'I can get anything out of Lance,' " Lamuraglia explained.
One such occasion was on Sept. 14, 2001, two weeks after Herrera voted with the majority on the County Commission to approve a liquor license for Jaguars, Galardi's newest and biggest strip club.
According to FBI wiretaps, Herrera informed Malone during a telephone conversation that he was separating from his wife.
"So I might need a little bit of help getting, you know, getting a place and stuff," Herrera said. "So I'll let you know."
Four days later, Herrera was observed by FBI agents meeting with Malone at a restaurant. That day, agents also overheard Malone and Galardi discussing Herrera's predicament in a telephone conversation.
"So what's (Herrera) expecting," Galardi asked.
Malone responded: "He was hoping, uh, he was hoping to hook up, uh, three months in advance."
"Oh, we can do that," Galardi said. "Just tell him I'll get it to him on Thursday."
On Sept. 19, 2001, Herrera voted to approve a use permit for Jaguars, the indictment said.
Two days later, after Herrera asked Malone to meet him, agents allegedly observed Malone give Herrera thousands of dollars in cash in a car outside Landry's seafood restaurant on West Sahara Avenue.
There are conflicting stories about how much money Herrera allegedly received from Malone. Galardi once told FBI agents he gave Malone $30,000 for Herrera. But Herrera's supporters strongly dispute that claim, suggesting the amount was far less and did not have to be reported as a gift on his financial disclosure statements.
Lamuraglia said Herrera introduced him to Galardi in January or February of 2002 to help Lamuraglia land a contribution for his state Senate campaign.
FBI agents, Lamuraglia said, showed him a surveillance videotape of him leaving the old Z'Tejas restaurant on South Paradise Road at lunch-time with Galardi, Malone and Herrera.
At the meeting Galardi agreed to contribute to Lamuraglia's campaign, the former lobbyist said.
Records show Lamuraglia later received a $2,500 contribution from Galardi on April 1, 2002, and another $5,000 donation on May 23.
Lamuraglia said he often saw Herrera receive envelopes from what he thought were campaign contributors, but never saw him take cash.
At times, however, Herrera would imply that he got cash, he said.
Lamuraglia recalled one such incident in 2002.
He said he was talking with Herrera in his County Commission office when longtime politically connected attorney Joe Brown walked in and handed him an envelope.
"Dario then asked me to leave the room, and I did, and later he said, 'I got something,' " Lamuraglia explained.
Lamuraglia said he took that to mean he had received cash.
But Lamuraglia also said he did not see what was in the envelope, and he did not know why Brown, a lobbyist and partner in the influential law firm of Jones Vargas, was visiting Herrera.
Lamuraglia told the FBI that Brown came to see Herrera about "some zoning item" before the commission.
Brown, who is prominent in Nevada Republican Party circles, strongly denied Lamuraglia's claim.
"There's absolutely no truth to this," he said. "It's some crazy dream of his. I don't recall ever meeting with Dario."
Brown has not been charged with wrongdoing and he says he has never even been interviewed by the FBI about the alleged incident.
But last month prosecutors informed defense lawyers that they intended to bring up the matter at trial to show a pattern of misconduct on Herrera's part.
David Malagold, a Justice Department attorney co-prosecuting the case, told the lawyers in a Feb. 6 letter that the government expects to present evidence that Herrera "received an improper payment from an individual name Joe Brown.
"The government," Malagold added, "also expects to prove that Herrera voted against a matter involving Mr. Brown in order to conceal and disguise his improper receipt of the payment."
In a Feb. 1 letter to lawyers, Malagold said prosecutors intended to show that Herrera was adept at disguising his "corrupt relationships" by sometimes voting against or abstaining on matters important to those "who gave him benefits."
"Herrera, had a pattern of making promises and then routinely voting against an issue or proposal the first time the issue was before the commission," according to the FBI report of Lamuraglia's interviews.
"Herrera told Lamuraglia that by conducting himself in this manner, no one could infer or say that he had received anything because of his vote," the report said.
County officials who worked with Herrera attributed his downfall to his meteoric rise in politics at such a young age.
"Everything came really quick for him," County Manager Thom Reilly said.
"Political life can be seductive, and I think he got caught up in that."
Added Lamuraglia: "It was all just too easy."