Friday, March 19, 2010 | 3 a.m.
Dominic Gentile didn’t want to move to Las Vegas from Houston, but now calls the move one of the best decisions of his life.
The Chicago-born Gentile, who will turn 64 on March 25, was prompted to move by his former wife Michelle, who had family in Las Vegas and was tired of his constant travel as an associate dean of the National Criminal Defense College in Houston.
What was it like for a Chicagoan to come out here from Houston to practice law?
“It was tough. I have to tell you,” Gentile said. “I did not want to come here. Las Vegas at that time in 1978 held nothing for me. There was nothing about Las Vegas that attracted me. I had grown up around green — grass and trees. Living in Texas, I had even more green in terms of grass and trees. I did not understand at all at that time what I now hold to be the majestic beauty of the desert. At that time, I did not understand it. It looked like a dead place.”
Gentile said he wasn’t a gambler and didn’t like the shows Las Vegas had to offer. He was more into Led Zeppelin than Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra.
“They say timing is everything, and it worked out well for us,” Gentile said. “I can tell you now, I feel like there might have been some divine intervention that caused me to come to Las Vegas because that is how good Las Vegas has been to me and my family.
“I love Las Vegas and I’m just glad it all worked out that way. It really was an accident.”
IBLV: Is there anything in your family background that spoke of you being a lawyer?
Gentile: Nothing in my family. No one from my family had every graduated from college in terms of a full four-year program. I was a first-generation student.
What about the impact of your late father, Charles?
My father had the influence. He had a lot of respect for criminal defense lawyers. It wasn’t just lawyers. He never needed one himself, but felt in his experience when he was a youth, there was a tendency in Chicago at that time, especially among Italian-American kids, to be put upon by a policeman. My dad and his observation of that made him develop a sense of wrong and he felt anybody who stood up for the rights of the oppressed was to be respected. He really drove that into me. I had to be less than 10 years old when I started hearing, “You should be a lawyer, you should be a lawyer.” In my high school graduation yearbook when they ask you for your career plan, I actually said criminal defense lawyer. I was one of those guys who had to be careful what he wished for.
What did your dad do?
My dad was a garbageman. My dad worked on the back of a garbage truck lifting barrels filled with garbage and throwing it into the back of the truck. He was also a bartender and a truck driver. To get that job as a garbageman, he had to become a precinct captain for the (Mayor Richard) Daley machine. I owe him a lot.
Where did you go to school?
DePaul Law School and undergrad.
What civil work do you do today?
I do civil fraud work. Civil fraud litigation is exactly the same, in terms of what the elements are and the proof is, as in criminal cases. The difference is in the civil arena, the parties have far better ability to discover what the other side has.
The other part of my practice, I do a lot of First Amendment work. I have been representing Greenspun for many, many years in First Amendment needs. (In Business Las Vegas is part of Greenspun Media Group). I have represented television stations and print media, and I have also done the adult-entertainment industry. It is all the First Amendment.
What got your interest in doing that?
I started at DePaul in 1968. Right when I started, a number of really interesting historic events took place in Chicago. I can remember seeing (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) march through Cicero. That was a pretty interesting event. I remember that changing me. I saw people that I knew and grew up with, identified with and hung out with doing things toward Dr. King that I felt embarrassed by and caused me to start doing internal inventory. Right after that, we had the Democratic Convention in 1968. Again, my dad was a Daley machine precinct captain. I grew up in a Daley machine Democratic house that thanked the Daley machine for the bread on the table. But I saw things happen in the park that shook me up, made me think, and made me wrestle with some really important things, looking back at it. Then, I went to law school one block from where the conspiracy eight trial was taking place (later to become the conspiracy seven trial).
The Chicago Seven (anti-war and Democratic convention protesters)?
Yes. You want to talk about important events that you would not be able to assess at the moment. I wound up working with most of the lawyers later on in my career who were involved in the defense of the Chicago Seven. My very first case I worked on as a volunteer for the American Civil Liberties Union was Roe v. Wade. You are talking about an Italian Catholic working on Roe v. Wade for the right of a woman to make a decision. You want to talk about some internal conflict and some wrestling with issues. By the way, that one I still wrestle with, and it is a long time later, but I only wrestle with it on a personal-values basis as opposed to the constitutionality issue.
But why civil rights?
When I first got out of law school, I knew I wanted to gravitate to criminal defense, and civil rights work is part and parcel with criminal defense. The Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure issue is a civil right. The right to counsel is a civil right and the right to due process is a civil right. They go hand in hand. There is no mystery about a criminal defense attorney also practicing in the arena of civil rights. Now, the First Amendment, while it is also a civil right, I will concede I became involved in First Amendment work primarily because of involvement in defending the movie theater that was showing a “Deep Throat” first run in Chicago in 1972. My first exposure, no pun intended, in the area of the First Amendment, was porn movies. However, I really developed a love and deep attachment to the First Amendment. I am a firm believer you have the right to let the world know how little you know. That is what the First Amendment does. I really believe they made it the First Amendment because they deemed it to be the most important to a democracy. I don’t think that was an accident.
So what is your practice today?
Today, my practice is homicide defense; fraud, civil and criminal; First Amendment, plaintiff and defense. I have done defamation work. That is about as mainstream as the First Amendment gets.
Do you enjoy the public profile cases?
I don’t enjoy them. If you look at my history, you will find me not ever make one high profile. They are high profile when I get in them. My efforts would be to keep them below the radar. Nothing good happens to somebody when the media latch on to the fact they are in trouble. If a lawyer does his job well and the case came to him when nobody knew about it, it should be that way when the case is over. That is what you should strive for. However, once in awhile when an injustice has taken place, you need to bring it to the attention of the public. I think a good example of that — a case I am not involved in — and I don’t express opinion with respects to the merits of it — is the Chrissy Mazzeo lawsuit against the governor. That is a case where the lawyer who represents Ms. Mazzeo had to get some public attention paid to it. The voters needed to know about it, make up their own minds whether it happened or not and ultimately a jury is going to do that. The answer is I don’t enjoy being involved in high-profile cases, but I know how to be involved in high-profile cases.
But why defend unpopular defendants and clients?
Justice isn’t a popularity contest, and it ought not to be. I don’t know. I guess I like the odds. I guess I have always been attracted by the underdog. I guess I liked playing David to Goliath. That has always been something that I enjoyed. If Goliath would have kicked David’s ass, you would have never heard about it. I guess I enjoy standing up to government and the powerful institutions, even private institutions on behalf of the little guy. It is so easy for those institutions and government to just crush a democracy.
You were one of the founders of the Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice. What does it do?
No. 1, I think it keeps the system honest. It definitely enlightens the Legislature during the legislative sessions. It acts as a source, information sharing among the defense bar. It acts as watchdog for prosecutorial misconduct or judicial misconduct and many other things. Plus, every once in awhile, it has a hell of a good party.
At Gordon Silver, you lead what is called the state’s only government investigations and business crimes group. What is that?
That is the best thing I have done in the last 20 years. We have the only full-service law firm in Nevada that has a criminal defense unit that can provide to our clients and those who need it not just the legal acumen but investigative acumen to take on an investigation early on. Let’s say the government is conducting an investigation, this is the bread and butter of what I do. You get a knock on your door and somebody hands you a subpoena, and it’s a grand jury subpoena … You know it’s not a good thing and so what do you do? There are lots of independent criminal defense lawyers in Las Vegas and many good ones. But there is no law firm that has the various disciplines that this law firm has such as gaming and real estate and bankruptcy and banking and corporate and on and on and on. It also has a unit within it that has the kind of experience that we have in terms of grand jury investigations, administrative investigations — law enforcement investigations that could wind up with a criminal accusation made.
Understand that the moment the accusation is made and it becomes public, the damage is done. The greatest example of that in recent times is the Tire Works situation where the attorney general of … Nevada filed a lawsuit after Channel 13 made a big (story) out of the fact it was part of an undercover sting investigation. The media attention that Channel 13 created devastated the business of Tire Works, and it was all false. A lawyer is expected to say that when a client is accused like that — we did more than say it, we established it. When the case was over with, the attorney general dismissed the whole case and acknowledged in its press release that the reason it became as celebrated as it was is because a deputy attorney general, apparently for her 15 minutes of fame, I guess, decided to invite the media to come along. And of course the media ran with it.
If I mentioned some of these names of cases you handled, what comes to mind? The late state Controller Kathy Augustine (who had faced impeachment for alleged wrongdoing)?
That was among my proudest moments. I don’t tend to be a prideful person, but that one was one that really came from the heart. First of all, I believe at that time, she was the second highest-ranking Republican constitutional officer in Nevada and the highest-ranking officer of either party to ever be investigated and prosecuted. For her to come to me, who has made no secret of the fact that I am a Democrat made me very proud. It was also the first impeachment ever in Nevada. There was no book to go to to learn how to do one. The thing I enjoyed most there was Kathy Augustine was a very forceful public person. She got absolutely no support from her own party or any other elected official, for that matter. As you can see in the Assembly, it was railroaded through. When we got to the Senate, we were able to do our job and (the senators) listened. They understood this was a trial, and it wasn’t a political proceeding. I would say having this resolved and having her keep her office was a moment that made me very proud that I listened to my father and went to law school.
The Galardi family (of the local strip-club industry)?
What comes to mind about it is how different Michael Galardi was from his father, Jack. Jack Galardi is one of those people who I have tremendous respect for his integrity. You can criticize Jack if you want to for being in an adult-entertainment business, but Jack Galardi would have never run for cover like his son did. He would have never done it. It is not to pass judgment on Michael. Michael has to live with it.
I think the entire case was engineered by the government from Day One. I really do believe the federal government went to a county commissioner and asked that county commissioner to recommend certain laws that (the commissioner) knew would have required the adult-entertainment industry to lobby against those laws. I think that county commissioner played along with (the government) and did it. Maybe that county commissioner knew she was part of a bigger scheme, maybe she didn’t. Maybe she was just used. But for the recommendation of a ridiculous change in the law, none of that activity would have taken place. The government spent 30 months wiretapping. It spent I don’t know how many millions of dollars conducting that investigation. Was it able to establish that three county commissioners took payoffs? Yeah. I guess it was. I don’t think there is any question about that. At the end of the day, justice was done in that case. My problem with it is that I don’t think any of that stuff would have happened but for the government stimulating it by getting another county commissioner who was not prosecuted to start the ball rolling.
Lance Malone (imprisoned former Clark County commissioner)?
Lance Malone is a friend of mine. I didn’t know him before I represented him. I have the highest regard for Lance Malone. There was a time in this community when the return to the community of a man that has Lance Malone’s integrity would have been celebrated, and he would have been greeted with open arms and embraced. Lance Malone was offered the moon to give testimony against other people in this community. He did not do so and he would not do so. It would have required him to compromise his own integrity and No. 2 to tell lies. Instead of doing those things, Lance Malone went to prison. I know I will be glad to see him come home.
Elizabeth Halverson (a former District Court judge)?
Well, that was a tough one. Judge Halverson is a nice lady. I know her from when she was a law clerk. I attended her wedding in San Francisco ... I think that Judge Halverson did not have the emotional makeup to sit as a judge, looking at it with 20-20 hindsight. On the other hand, I think that before she was even elected, there were those who made up their mind that they would be gunning for her if she got elected. I think there is plenty of evidence of that, and that’s what happened.
Glen Lerner (a local attorney)?
Glen Lerner is a wonderful guy. He is a friend of mine. He is the real deal. He is a good man and a good lawyer and a good businessman. I think he has set up a system for handling just about any kind of a personal-injury case. He does not handle them all in the same fashion. If a case comes in that it clearly has settlement value but nothing more, he has the ability to recognize that, and he conveys that to the client. He does not set the client up to have an unrealistic expectation … But for advertising, you can’t set up a shop like that.
But is he the heavy hitter (as he depicted in TV commercials)?
If he is the heavy hitter, I guess I am the designated hitter.
What would you classify as your most prominent case?
That is hard for me to say. I can tell you the one that happens to be the most prominent and I am proudest of. There are two. One was the representation of (Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist) John L. Smith when Steve Wynn sued him for defamation. It got the right result. John was dismissed from the case. John is a little guy. The other one would be when the Gaming Control Board nominated Sam Cecola for inclusion in the Black Book. We were able to prevail. It is the only time anybody ever has.
Why is it that you seem to be the go-to guy for big cases?
I don’t know if I can answer that. I suppose that I have a record of being effective. I think another reason — you are only talking about cases that reached the public’s eye — I think another reason is that most of the cases that I work on never reach the public’s eye. My clients like that. I do not need to self-aggrandize on the backs of a client. I don’t need to use a client to let the world know I am here and practicing law. And I don’t do that. Maybe that’s the reason, or they just like Italian guys.
What’s the state of the law industry in Las Vegas today and where it is heading?
The business of law is solving a problem. I think that the future of the business of law is exactly what we did here at Gordon Silver three years ago — to take into the large firm components that can use cross-disciplinary approaches in a really efficient manner to be able to solve a problem because most problems are complex. Most problems require more than just a criminal lawyer or more than just a bankruptcy lawyer or more than just a gaming lawyer. It requires different skill sets and backgrounds of experience to be able to analyze the problem and come up with the best business solution.
When our clients come in to see us, they don’t care how we solve their problem. They are not particularly interested in knowing the skill sets of the different players. They put their faith in a lawyer. That lawyer might be me. They leave to the lawyer to staff the situation to fix it. I don’t think you can do that in the sole practitioner world. If you were to do that in the sole practitioner world, the client is going to spend a lot more money because he is going to have to retain different lawyers, different law firms and then he has to hope they can clear their schedules to be able to meet in one place at one time or read the e-mails in some sort of a real-time fashion so it can be done in an efficient basis. Just like every other business is focusing on becoming more efficient, I think the delivery of legal services for a fee must do that as well.
That is why I am very happy to be part of the pioneering law firm in that regard as it relates to the delivery of criminal law services.
You don’t miss having your name on the marquee?
No. When I came to Gordon Silver, Jerry (Gordon) and Jeff (Silver) both talked to me about changing the name of the firm. My feeling was the firm was 40 years old, and it had done quite well as Gordon Silver. My ego did not require that it be changed. No. 2, I didn’t know if I was going to like it so why would I want to change it, and they would have to change it back? It turns out I love it. I am really happy. No. 3, there are many partners in this law firm who have had many more years in this law firm when I joined it. I thought it would really be an affront to them to change the name of the firm. It works. I don’t know that anybody has any trouble finding me. They know where I am. My name doesn’t need to be on the marquee. I don’t miss it. To tell you the truth, I like it better.
I feel like this is truly an institution. It is going to be here when I am gone. It is going to be here when Jerry Gordon and Jeff Silver are gone.
Did you have any doubts about coming here and giving up your practice?
Yes. As a matter of fact, I have been here 2 1/2 years, and they asked me two years before that. I was hesitant. Although other cities have criminal departments in an institutionalized law firm, Las Vegas didn’t have. I was kind of used to marching to my own beat, and I was concerned if I moved my law firm into this law firm, that could no longer happen … Whatever changes there have been, have been for the better in the sense that I have other people with a lot at stake to go and ask for their guidance. Before, I had nobody. I can tell you that I believe while my skills have not improved other than the natural maturation, my abilities to deliver have grown immeasurably just by having these other brains to pick.
What advice do you give to young lawyers?
Just recently, the daughter of a couple of friends of mine who are lawyers — she is at that age where she is coming out of law school where she is going to change the world on her own. I tried to tell her that you can only change the world for one person at a time and that the ability to do that increases by how much support you have. I would encourage any young lawyer coming out of law school today that if they want to practice criminal law, to at least think about on a serious level about doing it in the framework of a full-service law firm or at least group practice as opposed to doing it on your own. If you want to spend $20,000 a month advertising on television, you will make a lot of money, but you are not going to be doing much good for anybody, other than negotiate a guilty plea because you are not going to have time.
Tell me about your family’s acquisition of the Palomino Club in North Las Vegas and your involvement in the strip-club industry?
I got the real estate (with three clubs on it) as a fee. Because my client could no longer operate them, we needed to find someone to take them over. My partners in the real estate they all knew (my son) Adam, and they were the ones who said, “Why don’t you let Adam have the clubs?” They were not worth anything anyhow. That is true. They were not. Other than the business potential, the clubs had been run into the ground. I wasn’t in favor of it, but I wasn’t going to deprive Adam of an opportunity to test his mettle. It is the industry he chose. He wanted to do it. And so I let my partners and my son talk me into letting him do it. And now candidly, looking with 20-20 hindsight, he has done a phenomenal job. He has made it a successful club.
What was it like to appear on the reality television show about the Palomino Club on the Playboy Channel?
We had a good time with that. It was a lot of fun. I wasn’t in it very much. I think in the 12 weeks it was on, I was in five scenes. I am not sure how much reality it is. A lot of it is staged. It is assisted reality.
How is that industry holding up during the recession and do you see your family expanding further in it?
Adam’s club has been very successful during the recession, but it’s been successful because of his management style and his marketing style. He decided he was not going to pay cabdrivers (commissions) to bring customers to his establishment. He focused on local clientele. By focusing on locals and by really controlling his costs, he has developed it into a profitable operation. He is not, in any way, dependent upon convention or cabdriver business in order to do that. On the other hand … we have seen four or five of (other strip clubs) either shut their doors or fall into bankruptcy and foreclosure. I anticipate you are going to see another four or five over the next year or so. At some point in time, it would be my guess is that you are going to see consolidation in that industry. With regards to the second part of the question on expansion, I can only say to you as a father and hopefully a grandfather, I hope not only because it is a tough business. It is not conducive to a family life.
Because of the hours. Not because of the adult entertainment aspect of it. Seventy hour weeks and 80 hours weeks is not unusual in a business like that.
What is your take on paying commissions to cabdrivers?
It should be outlawed and the reason for it, it is working a fraud on the customer. It has gotten to the point where cabdrivers are picking people up and telling them they will give them $20 if they let the cabdriver take them to a strip club. Some strip clubs are paying cabdrivers $100 a person. I heard it went to $110 recently. There is only one way to make up that money, and that is to gouge the customer. If the customer walks through the front door and they are hit by prices that are $15 for a drink that shouldn’t cost more than $4 or $5, that is bad for Las Vegas. The other way the clubs make up for money going out the front door to cabdrivers is to get more dancers. The theory is the more customers you have, the more dancers are going to be there. The dancers pay a daily fee in order to entertain. If there are going to be more dancers who are coming into that club, there is going to more competition between dancers. There is no way that is not going to encourage some of those dancers to become involved in things that are unlawful. It all stems from the need for the clubs that have spent so many millions of dollars to pay the mortgages that they have on those clubs.
What about your role in the Italian-American community as the founder and publisher of La Voce, a monthly newspaper. Why did you do that?
My mother and father were both Italian-Americans. My grandparents were immigrants from Italy. I come from an (area) in Chicago in which ethnicity is far more important than it ever has been in Las Vegas … I experienced all of that growing up, and it is a part of me. It’s nice thing. It is a good thing, and it needs to be preserved. There are many other people in our community who feel the same way, but the only way to preserve it is through setting up means of communicating and sharing those feelings and thoughts. One of the ways is setting up organizations such as the Augustus Society where people can give back. Its whole purpose is to raise money from its members and take that money and spend that only on higher education. It has been doing that almost to the tune of $1 million in scholarship money. The newspaper is a virtual neighborhood. Las Vegas does not have an Italian neighborhood, but it does have Italian restaurants and pizzerias. I kind of got the brainstorm that we could set up a virtual neighborhood, but to do it, we needed to have something to bring those people together. I have always enjoyed the media. I have been a media lawyer for 30 years and I understood the power of it. We kind of took a shot. We didn’t know if we were going to make it or not. But that shot is now 10 years old, so I guess we made it. It lives and dies on its advertising and there is no doubt that some of our advertisers put ads in our newspaper because it brings them business. There are others who put in ads that are bigger than they need to be, but they want to help support the community and help support the newspaper.
Your newspaper has expressed concerns about the Las Vegas mob museum perpetuating negative stereotypes about Italian-Americans. Is that a concern of yours?
Yes, it is a concern of mine. The reason for it is everybody didn’t grow up in … Chicago. Everybody doesn’t know that the gangster is a minuscule percentage of the Italian community … But the difference is the gangster with an Italian surname has been celebrated in the movies and in books and perpetuated and blown way out of proportion to the point where it still happens to me — they learn I am an Italian-American and I am from Chicago, they want to talk about Al Capone. Al Capone died before I was born. That stereotype is out there. My concern about a mob museum is primarily Italian-American, but candidly it transcends that, that even if it’s true that the mob built Las Vegas, which it is not true, that doesn’t mean you should give some young kid who is going to walk in there … something that is being glorified. It shouldn’t be glorified. If (Las Vegas Mayor Oscar) Goodman wants to have the mob museum and no Italian-Americans in it, I am all for that. He can do whatever he wants.
Have you had any success in getting your concerns addressed?
Not at all. They have totally ignored us.