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April 18, 2014

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Oh, the irony: The former mob lawyer gets FBI support for mob museum

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The building where the mob museum is planned in Las Vegas is a former courthouse where one day of the Kefauver hearings on organized crime happened in November 1950.

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In 2002, Mayor Oscar Goodman’s suggestion that the historic post office near City Hall be turned into a mob museum caused a minor uproar. Community activists railed against the possible glorification of organized crime. Some Italian-Americans expressed anger over how they might be portrayed.

When he was next asked about it, Goodman jokingly claimed that he had meant to propose a “mop” museum.

A poll conducted by the city in 2006 showed that although tourists were in favor of a museum dedicated to the Mafia’s local exploits, Las Vegans were far less interested.

The hesitancy may have had something to do with the project’s chief backer, Goodman, a high-profile and unapologetic mob lawyer before ascending to the mayoral throne.

Such reluctance appears to have vanished, like a Mafia informant set to testify in a trial.

Plans for the museum — likely to be known officially as the Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, but more commonly as the Mob Museum — have gained momentum in recent months.

Fundraising has picked up, and possibly as early as next month city officials and outside contractors will present the museum’s proposed official logo and marketing plan to the City Council for approval.

The idea for the Mob Museum has gained such traction that even the FBI is now fully behind it.

Ellen Knowlton, former special agent in charge of the local FBI field office, is heading a nonprofit group working with the city on the project. And bureau officials in Washington, D.C., have been going through their archives and warehouses to find exhibits to help tell their side of the story.

FBI officials say they’re actively participating to ensure the museum fully and accurately illustrates the exploits of mob-busting G-men.

“We support it because we want to make sure the mob isn’t glorified in any way,” said Dave Staretz, spokesman for the FBI’s Las Vegas field office. “We need to make sure they present some symmetry, that they show the other side.”

The site holds special historical resonance.

The three-story post office building at 300 Stewart Ave., one block east of City Hall and across the street from the shuttered Lady Luck, also was the city’s first federal courthouse. The neoclassical building first opened in 1933.

One day’s worth of the famous “Kefauver hearings” took place at the courthouse in November 1950. Those committee sessions, named for U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver (and later dramatized in “The Godfather: Part II”), investigated organized crime in hearings across the country during 1950-51.

The city acquired the post office from the federal government in May 2002.

From the beginning, the idea of a museum on that site — and not just any museum, but one dedicated to the history of the local Mafia — was Goodman’s.

City officials say he has lined up prominent supporters, personally attending meetings and phoning top managers often to gauge its progress.

“The mayor’s been very involved in this from Day One,” Deputy City Manager Betsy Fretwell said.

It was that engagement that brought Knowlton to the table. That was considered a master stroke that shifted a potentially interesting project — but seen by some as unserious, another odd project with questionable Las Vegas “taste” — into the mainstream.

Goodman approached Knowlton soon after she retired from her long FBI career in February 2006 to ask her to serve on the museum’s board. At first, she said she was dubious.

“I wasn’t sure of the integrity of the project,” Knowlton said.

But she soon came around, recognizing she could help ensure the project was approached responsibly.

Key for Knowlton was making sure that the Mafia would in no way be glorified — that younger and more impressionable visitors wouldn’t be enticed “into a life of crime.”

“It will tell the whole story,” she said, “including the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Last November, Knowlton and city officials, including the city’s cultural affairs manager, Nancy Deaner, pitched the idea to officials at FBI headquarters in Washington, including some in the organized crime section of the bureau’s criminal division. They bought it, and committed to helping fill the museum with exhibits.

Exhibits will be pegged to the region’s bootlegging days; to the 1950s and ’60s, when mobsters from crime families throughout the country flocked to the region; to the 1980s, when the mob’s local influence waned, both through more effective racketeering prosecutions and the corporatization of the casino industry.

Among the exhibits being discussed include an old police holding cell into which mobsters were thrown, and a series of tape recordings of mobsters, including one of a Mafia induction ceremony, which Goodman said he provided.

Knowlton is president of the 300 Stewart Avenue Corp., the nonprofit organization working with the city on the project, and which will run the museum as its operating entity. She said she volunteered for the unpaid job because of the positive civic influence she could have.

Board members include former U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, Bob Stoldal, the recently retired, longtime top news executive for KLAS-TV, Channel 8; and MGM Mirage Senior Vice President Alan Feldman.

According to city officials, the total budget for the project is between $45 million and $50 million, depending on whether they decide to build a pavilion to the west of the museum. Roughly $39 million will be spent on construction rehabilitation, and another $9 million will go toward exhibits.

The city, which has spent $12 million so far on the project and raised just more than $7 million in grants, is hoping to open the museum during the summer of 2010.

Ideally, the mayor said at a recent news conference, the grand opening would be timed to coincide with the reopening of the refurbished Lady Luck.

Several outside contractors have been hired by the city, including Wall-to-Wall Studios of Pittsburgh, paid about $180,000 for branding and marketing assistance, and the architecture firm of Westlake, Reed and Leskosky, which will handle museum planning. Its contract with the city currently runs about $7 million.

Construction on the inside of the museum is slated to begin at the end of October, according to city officials.

An official with Wall-to-Wall declined to comment. Dennis Barrie of Westlake, Reed and Leskosky could not be reached. Barrie’s previous projects include the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland and the International Spy Museum in Washington.

Other contractors have been tasked with planning exhibits and making sure the building is retrofitted to survive an earthquake.

Randy Snow, creative director with the Las Vegas advertising firm R&R Partners, suggested the Mob Museum might want to market itself as the place to learn the real dirt on what Las Vegas was like when the mob was the major player..

It’s the kind of sexy topic, Snow said, that everyone seems to know a little about, but no one knows a lot. He suggested a marketing campaign along the lines of: “What you know only scratches the surface.”

Indeed, there are gruesome things about the mob’s history here that not everyone may want to know. That’s one issue being debated, said Knowlton: how graphic to make some of the exhibits, and whether there should be age restrictions on access to some or all of the museum.

Goodman was close to men accused of some of the mob’s most brutal acts. His client, Anthony “Tony the Ant” Spilotro, portrayed in the movie “Casino” by actor Joe Pesci, allegedly put a rival mobster’s head in a vise until his eyes popped out.

The mayor has often joked that he never knew there was organized crime in Las Vegas, and he hasn’t publicly made any apologies about zealously defending such figures, saying a defense was their constitutional right.

Goodman demurred when asked whether he wanted the museum to help now tell a broader story about the mob in Vegas than the one he told in court.

“No, I’m not taking that kind of active role,” he said. “I have really backed off as far as dictating the way it should go.

“I can tell you this, though: From my personal experience, law enforcement won.”

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