Steve Miller is a former Las Vegas City Councilman. In 1991, the readers
of the Las Vegas Review Journal voted him the "Most Effective Public
Official" in Southern Nevada. Visit his
website at: http://www.SteveMiller4LasVegas.com
The anatomy of a nixed libel lawsuit
INSIDE VEGAS by Steve
December 19, 2005
Ex-mayor Jan Jones
Ex-councilman Mike McDonald
LAS VEGAS - In the news business, its not unusual to receive
demands for retraction or correction. Legitimate news outlets usually
take such demands very seriously.
In the case of a potentially defamed person, its customary for the
offended party to first contact the writer or publisher and demand that
the defamatory content be corrected or retracted. Then the publisher
may chose to correct or retract the challenged information. If so, he
must do so in like form as the
original material including
placement and size. If not, the potentially injured party can sue the
publisher or author, and if successful, obtain punitive damages
(infliction of emotional distress, etc.) in addition to real damages
(loss of income, business, etc.) If no retraction demand was made prior
to the lawsuit being filed (a very rare occurrence), the court is
limited to awarding only real damages which are much harder to prove.
In the case of a public figure who feels he was defamed or libeled, the
burden of proof is much higher based
v. NEW YORK TIMES. The
injured person must also prove that the defamation was made with
"actual malice" and "reckless disregard for the truth." (Remember the
movie "Absence of Malice" with Paul Newman?)
Regarding a demand for retraction, the offended party should clearly
describe the defamatory statement
and why its untrue, then give the publisher time to research and decide
whether to correct or retract. Upon receiving such a demand,
conscientious editors and writers usually confer immediately with the
publication's lawyers. In the majority of cases, the complainant gets
the benefit of the doubt, though the First Amendment is always primary
when it comes to facts that are verifiable -- hurt feelings aside.
In 1999, as a columnist and reporter for the Las Vegas Tribune, a weekly
newspaper then-owned by attorney John Fadgen and partners Jon Moser,
Frank Vipperman, and Rolando Larraz, I began covering a story about a
politically influential local strip club that had been allowed to
expand without first obtaining proper permits from the city.
In my coverage, I described how a city councilman had gone on a feigned
crusade against pornography in order to shut down an adult book
book store that had a long term lease on 6,000 square feet of space
that the strip club secretly wanted for expansion. Soon after the book
store was closed by the city, the space was converted to the strip
It was obvious, at least to me, that the fix was in.
In a subsequent article, I
reported on a lawsuit by nearby property
owners who claimed the bar had not provided additional parking for the
expansion, and that the city had not required a parking and traffic
study as is always required. I
described how the same councilman's staff helped the strip club obtain
its building and occupancy permits after
the expansion had been open to the public for several weeks, and
only after a lawsuit had been
Then, I broke a story about the councilman living rent free
in a golf course villa owned by the family of an associate of the strip
club owner. In the meantime, I wrote articles about the then-mayor
attending social gatherings at the strip club owner's estate located
several blocks from the councilman's free digs. My stories also
contained accusations from citizens that she was doing the strip club
owner favors. The councilman
moved out several weeks after my free
rent story broke, and the mayor,
who was a defendant in a high profile lawsuit,
decided not to run for reelection.
My columns and front page stories began to offend certain "pillars
of the community" who had for years been obviously operating under
the aegis of the mayor and several councilmembers.
As my stories and columns on the bar and its connection to the
councilman and mayor continued, one of the newspaper's owners privately
asked me to tone it down because he owed money to Fred
Doumani and Joey
Cusumano, two men associated
with the bar. I ignored his unreasonable request, and continued
Shortly thereafter, and without
warning, I was sued for defamation of character. The Tribune was included as a
defendant in the lawsuit.
The complaint stated that
Tribune stories and columns I
authored had falsely accused Rick Rizzolo, the purported owner of
the Crazy Horse Too, of "illegal and unethical activities."
The complaint did not state what these "illegal
and unethical activities" were,
just that my stories injured Rizzolo's good reputation and status in
the community. The complaint mentioned two specific articles: a story about Rizzolo spying on a
neighboring business; and a story about the expansion of his business.
The complaint did not state what was untrue in the articles.
Upon receipt of the complaint, Mr. Fadgen summoned his partners, this
writer, and the newspaper's editors to his law office. First he asked
if a demand for correction or retraction had ever been received at the
paper or by me prior to the lawsuit being filed? None had. Then he
apart the two articles (below) sentence by sentence and word by word to
find anything that could be
At the end of the two hour meeting, the decision was made to
continue coverage of events at the Crazy Horse because Rizzolo had no
basis for a defamation lawsuit,
and that he was a public figure. Mr. Fadgen placed a
call to Rizzolo's young attorneys, Dean Patti and Tony Sgro, to
Within days, interrogatories arrived at the
newspaper office and at my home along with a subpoena for me to appear
at a deposition. The documents wanted to know the names of
my sources at city hall, and asked for copies of personal records,
correspondence, and notes about the Crazy Horse. They also asked
questions about my personal finances and business interests. At that
point, I was forced to make a claim on my Farmer's Homeowner's
Insurance policy for
personal legal coverage.
My insurance company assigned me an excellent attorney from a prestigious
local firm. I
instructed him that I would continue writing stories and
columns about Rizzolo and his business, and that under the Nevada
Shield Law, I could not be compelled
to answer interrogatories or subpoenas to testify. He informed Patti
and Sgro. They were furious!
Nevada's Shield Law, NRS 49.275 is one of the strongest in the nation.
"No reporter, former reporter or editorial employee of any newspaper,
periodical or press association or employee of any radio or television
station may be required to disclose any published
or unpublished information obtained or prepared by such person in such
person's professional capacity in gathering, receiving or processing
information for communication to the public, or the source of any
information procured or obtained by such person in any legal
proceedings, trial or investigation."
The Nevada Press Association Legal
for Nevada Reporters states: "The protection provided by this statute
is extremely broad. District Court Judges and Justices of the Peace
have repeatedly quashed subpoenas by both defense and prosecution in
criminal cases, as well as by parties in civil matters. As it is
written, the statute does not require the press to testify even about
those matters which have been published."
I also told my attorney that the lawsuit was simply a method to
intimidate and silence me, something commonly called a SLAPP
suit, and that he should not waste time answering the plaintiff's
correspondence with more than one page answers. He said that my
request was unusual, but he would comply.
In defiance of the Shield Law, Patti and
Sgro continued sending reams of
paper containing requests for production of documents along with
threats of sanctions if we did not comply. They warned me and the
newspaper to stop writing negative stories about the Crazy Horse or
Rizzolo, or we would be "compounding the libel." This
only served to peak my interest in Rizzolo and his crew, and with the
blessings of John Fadgen, all the
coverage of their client moved to the front page.
As we increased our coverage of Rizzolo and his associates, as
expected, all of Patti and Sgro's subpoenas were quashed by the District Court Referee based on the Shield Law.
Meanwhile, the lawsuit caught the attention of outside media, and
generated new sources and readers for my stories. The Tribune had a tiger by the tail!
I began devoting more and more time to the Rizzolo story. I even
started a website
devoted to him, and began a series of daily E-Briefs
including information on the latest beatings, robberies, and murders at
the Crazy Horse. Seeing that I didn't fear the lawsuit, other reporters
followed my lead.
For the next three years, on radio and TV talk shows, I proudly called
the defamation suit my "badge of courage." I always referenced the date
it was filed to time stamp the fact that I was the first writer to
report the political corruption, and the violence the corruption
On October 3, 2001, a year after
the defamation lawsuit was filed, I broke the story
of Kirk Henry. The shocking story was picked up by NBC News that used Tribune photos in their coverage. I was also an advisor for the August 1, 2004, segment about
Mr. Henry on Dateline
NBC. All this while
being sued for defamation!
Had I initially been intimidated by Patti and
Sgro, important facts may never have been made public, and the
bloodshed could have continued unabated. Though other local reporters
knew what was going on, their editors were not John Fadgens, and the
mere threat of litigation was enough to discourage coverage of some of
the most violent episodes in the history of Las Vegas.
Then several amazing things happened:
On October 9, 2001, Mr. Rizzolo (or someone at his behest), authored a Letter
to the Editor addressed to Rolando Larraz. In it, for the first
time, was a demand for retraction referencing an article I authored
Charge Against Rizzolo Sticks
." For the second time, the
editorial board of the Tribune
and concluded that the article contained only factual information. No
retraction was issued, but in fairness, Mr. Rizzolo's letter was
On November 13, 2001, Patti and
Sgro tried to get a friendly judge to place a gag order on my
Crazy Horse news coverage. Because I'm deeply offended by such
unconstitutional actions, and because I was completely willing to
violate any gag order, I did not attend the hearing. But unbeknownst to
me, in the gallery were
attorneys representing the Nevada Press Association and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), along with Tom Mitchell, the Editor of the Las Vegas Review Journal. When she
saw who was present, the compromised
judge backed down at the last minute, and Patti and Sgro's obvious plan
to put me behind bars fell apart.
|Attorney Tony Sgro, who represents
topless club owner Rick Rizzolo, argues Tuesday in favor of a gag order
against former City Councilman Steve Miller and the Las Vegas Tribune.
At right are attorneys Dowon Kang, Chris Rasmussen and Gus Flangas, who
opposed the request. Las Vegas Review Journal photo by Gary Thompson
On February 28, 2003, Tribune "Editor
in Chief" Rolando Larraz told
Cathy Scott of the Las Vegas
CityLife magazine; "
(Fred) Doumani is my friend
for 40 years. I owe him money. He's never asked for it back."
Two years earlier in 2001, Larraz told me that Doumani and Cusumano
were very upset with my stories and columns and wanted me to stop
writing about the Crazy Horse. He also told me he owed both men large
sums of money. Undaunted, I continued my coverage. I never told Mr.
Fadgen of the secret meeting -- though I now wish I had.
In March 2001, my friend and
Fadgen passed away.
John P. Fadgen
Just prior to his untimely death, Mr. Fadgen allowed me to use the
front steps of his newspaper office for a press conference to announce
the recall of Las Vegas City Councilman Michael
McDonald -- Rizzolo's
at city hall.
holds a photo of
Las Vegas City Councilman Michael McDonald on Thursday as he plays
"Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash on a tape recorder during a news
conference. The conference was called to announce a recall effort
against McDonald. Steve Marcus / Las
The death of John Fadgen was the beginning of the end of credibility
for the Las Vegas Tribune.
Soon after Fadgen's passing, Larraz,
who owned twenty-five percent of the Tribune's
stock, began exerting pressure on his two remaining partners and
myself to stop reporting
violent events at the Crazy Horse Too, but he was overruled by Moser
and Vipperman who owned fifty percent of the stock. Unfortunately, we
did not know that John Fadgen had willed his Tribune stock to Larraz, and the
tables were about to turn. In the meantime, the Crazy Horse stories
On October 10, 2002, a frustrated Tony Sgro wrote
to my attorney: "Virtually every week, Mr. Miller writes an article in
the Tribune, and posts that article on his website, disparaging Mr.
Rizzolo. On some ambitious weeks, he writes two or three of these
articles. I understand the importance of a free press. Mr. Miller is
certainly entitled to his opinion and he is entitled to express that
opinion in print. What Mr. Rizzolo has always objected to is not Mr.
Miller’s negative opinions of him, but of the weekly misstatements of
fact. In the hundreds of articles written by Mr. Miller about Mr.
Rizzolo over the years, one would be hard pressed to find a single one
that was not replete with inaccuracies."
The Crazy Horse reports were our top stories until
Mr. Fadgen's probate was settled in the fall of 2002. Then the Tribune suddenly
did a bizarre
one-hundred-eighty degree turn and began defending Rizzolo! I immediately started looking for another writing
job. After I left, Moser told
me that Larraz, an ex-felon, allowed Doumani to ghost write the
late 2002, I began writing INSIDE VEGAS for Rick Porrello's
On February 20, 2003, the Crazy Horse was raided
by the FBI and IRS. When the Tribune,
now under Larraz and his
creditor's control, ignored
their once-top story, the readership plummeted and has never recovered.
Photo by John Gurzinski, Las
Vegas Review Journal
August 6, 2003, Farmer's Insurance offered Rizzolo $62,000 to drop his defamation
suit against me. He quickly accepted the money with no conditions
attached. Consequently, my "badge of courage" line could no longer be
used (probably by design).
On January 19, 2005, Rizzolo's
club manager, Bobby D'Apice, was taken
down in front of the club by the FBI
and IRS for Extortion, Robbery, False Statements, and Tax Evasion.
On Thursday, November 3, 2005, Southern California's second largest
newspaper, the Orange County Register, revealed
for the first time that "
Rizzolo has a criminal record: he
pleaded guilty in 1985 to battery for a baseball bat attack on a
Horse patron, who suffered brain damage."
Last week, Jeff German of the Las
Vegas SUN reported
that lawyers for Rizzolo traveled to Washington, DC to try to convince
Department of Justice prosecutors to go easy on their client. Rick
Rizzolo is expected to suffer the same fate (see above photo) as
D'Apice sometime shortly after the New Year when indictments are
It is currently unknown whether local
who have been aiding and abetting Rizzolo's
criminal enterprise will be included in the pending indictments.
Because the the following two articles
were the only articles mentioned in Rizzolo's defamation lawsuit, its expected that information they
contain will be used by federal prosecutors at
Something I wrote must have really struck a nerve!
in the Act of Spying on Neighboring Business
Las Vegas Tribune
December 6, 2000
By Steve Miller
Photos by Mike Christ
installed camera. (Middle
Frederick Rizzolo and his bodyguards stand near ladder they removed.
(Right) Rizzolo and Al Rapuano make hasty retreat
LAS VEGAS – For the past two years, topless nightclub owner
Frederick Rizzolo has wanted to expand his Crazy Horse Too strip joint
into space leased by his neighbor Allstate Auto and Marine. The reason?
In 1998, the Nevada Department of Transportation announced that it
intended to widen Industrial Road thereby taking fifty parking spaces
and the main entrance from the club. In order to remain in business at
that location, Rizzolo would be forced to make major alterations to his
A feud developed between Rizzolo and Allstate Auto when the
landlord, Renate Schiff, attempted, then rescinded (after Allstate
filed a lawsuit against her), evicting the auto shop to make way for
Rizzolo’s planned new entrance. Rizzolo and Schiff had alleged that
Allstate customers were blocking fire exits at the nightclub.
Allstate Auto has leased its 11,000 square feet from Schiff
past twenty-two years with nine years remaining on its lease. Allstate
pays 43 cents per square foot while Rizzolo reportedly pays many times
that amount per foot for his space.
The catch? Neither Rizzolo nor Schiff has offered to buy out
Allstate to make way for the Crazy Horse’s expansion.
Last year, a racketeering lawsuit was filed by Allstate owner
Buffalo Jim Barrier against Rizzolo and Schiff alleging a conspiracy to
harass Barrier and his customers through the use of city inspectors.
Named in the suit are Rizzolo’s friends former Mayor Jan Jones and
current Councilman Mike McDonald. Jones and McDonald are accused of
ordering city officials to pester Barrier as a favor to Rizzolo.
Jones was a frequent visitor to Rizzolo’s Canyon Gate home,
McDonald leases a Canyon Gate County Club villa valued at $500,000 from
the family of Rizzolo’s associate Joey Cusamano. The amount McDonald
pays in rent has never been disclosed.
McDonald was recently convicted of violating city ethics laws
he was caught doing a favor for Rizzolo to help squelch competition
from opening nearby.
In the meantime, employees of Barrier spotted an unusual box
week mounted on the roof of a building across the alley from the auto
repair shop. Upon closer inspection an amateurishly installed
television camera was discovered aimed at the back of Barrier’s garage.
Barrier summoned photographer Mike Christ to take photos of the camera
installation for evidence in his lawsuit.
When Christ climbed onto the roof the take photos from in
the TV camera, Rizzolo suddenly emerged from the rear of his nightclub
accompanied by several persons Christ described as bodyguards. The men
ordered Christ to stop taking pictures. When Christ refused, one of the
men at Rizzolo’s behest removed Christ’s ladder thereby stranding the
photographer on the roof. Christ called 911. While waiting for police,
he took several photos of Rizzolo and his men standing below in what
Christ described as an intimidating manner.
Rizzolo had often complained that Barrier was violating city
and safety codes by painting vehicles in the alley. Barrier denies
doing so and suspected that the camera was aimed at his business to
document such activities.
Prior to Councilman McDonald’s conviction on ethics
neighbors of Rizzolo’s business complained that city and fire
inspectors ignored their complaints about unsafe conditions at the
nightclub, but were quick to respond to Rizzolo’s complaints. However,
last week, for the first time, it was reported that Rizzolo was cited
by city inspectors for dumping kitchen degreasing chemicals in the
alley behind the Crazy Horse, along with having unapproved signage in
front of his building.
A city inspector, who wished to remain unnamed for fear of
retaliation, stated that this was the first time his bosses let him
respond to a complaint on the Crazy Horse. He said he believed that it
was because McDonald had lost his clout at city hall since the ethics
convictions and recall effort against him.
When Metro Police arrived on the scene at the photographer's
request, Rizzolo retreated back into the rear of his nightclub while
his men were ordered by police to replace the ladder and let Christ
climb off the roof.
Just before Tribune press time, it was reported that the
aimed at Allstate Auto and Marine had been removed.
|COLUMN: Steve Miller
Las Vegas Tribune
December 13, 2000
owners near the expanded Crazy Horse Too are
questioning whether the circumstances leading up to last year's
approval -- after the fact -- of the topless club's 6000 square foot
expansion are related to the sudden lifestyle change of Councilman
Soon after the questioned expansion, McDonald
wearing a diamond Rolex watch valued at over $20,000; began driving a
new Lincoln Navigator; and took up residence in a half-million dollar
villa owned by the mother-in-law of a business partner of Rick Rizzolo,
the owner of the Crazy Horse.
Bobette Lee Taylor, the wife of businessman
Tegano, owns the house located in the Canyon Gate Country Club that was
occupied, up until last month, by McDonald. The house was a few blocks
from Rizzolo's residence. Tegano is the father in law of Joey Cusamano
who is listed in Nevada's Black Book of excluded persons. Cusamano is
known to be a close associate of Rick Rizzolo, the owner of the Crazy
McDonald refused to state what he paid to
2,300 square foot Italian style villa only to say; "I pay my fair
share." McDonald makes $37,000 per year as a City Councilman and
$52,000 as a salesman for Las Vegas Color Graphics. He also has
received several settlements from slip and fall lawsuits he filed. Real
estate experts estimate that the house he occupied should rent for
between $3,000 and $4,000 per month not including utilities and
homeowner's association fees.
Property owners near the Crazy Horse Too
believe that the house is a payback for favors resulting in the
post-approval of the club's expansion plans.
In Rizzolo's case, even with the full
the Nevada Department of Transportation planned to take all of the
parking spaces in front of his Crazy Horse Too and the majority of
spaces in an adjacent lot located under the Sahara overpass for the
widening of Industrial Rd., the Las Vegas City Council waived normally
required parking and traffic studies and allowed his expansion to take
This unprecedented action has resulted in a
by Meadows Village property owners led by Peter Christoff. Through
their attorney they claim that the enlarged business does not have
adequate parking and adversely impacts the nearby low-income
residential neighborhood with overflow parking and crime.
At the February 8, 1999, council hearing when
expansion was approved, several protesters accused former Mayor Jones
and Councilman Michael McDonald of doing Crazy Horse Too owner
Frederick Rizzolo a political favor by allowing the expansion.
Jones and McDonald are often seen at social
functions held at Rizzolo's Canyon Gate home, and when this fact was
made known by protesters, Jones and McDonald became visibly angry.
Sources inside city hall report that Doug
assistant to Councilman McDonald, "Walked through" the topless club's
application in the city Public Works Department. Rankin was also seen
sitting in the audience with associates of Rizzolo at the initial
Planning Commission hearing in early 1999. The Mayor and Council
appoint members of the Planning Commission.
It is customary that an NDOT road-widening plan be included in the
backup information provided to councilmembers prior to a vote for an
expansion that would necessitate additional parking -- in this instance
it was conspicuously omitted.
"Walk through" is a term used when a
or one of his staff accompanies a developer through the application
phase of a project. This practice, though not illegal, is considered
improper and shows favoritism. "Walk throughs" are legally tolerated
but usually are looked upon as favors being given to selected political
campaign contributors or cronies. The practice should be outlawed!
In the case of expansions of similar business,
businesses are required to submit traffic and parking studies, site
plans, artist's renderings of elevations, and stamped architectural
plans. Careful investigation failed to locate any such documents for
Reno attorney Glade Hall representing the adjacent
owners stated in his complaint: "On or about December 15.1998 the Crazy
Horse Too filed an application to the City of Las Vegas Board of Zoning
Adjustment for a variance to allow the expansion of a non-Conforming
sexually oriented business where that expansion is explicitly
prohibited. At the time of such application the expansion for which
approval was sought, had already been Constructed, apparently with the
consent of officers and employees of the City of Las Vegas."
Hall goes on to state: "The applicant failed to provide landscaping
plans, adjacent land uses and streets, property lines, elevations, and
other necessary items. The site and floor plans that were provided are
unsigned and undated copies that no engineer or architect apparently
wished to take credit for."
Further on in the complaint it states: "The
Department of Transportation was in the process of designing a street
widening project that would take approximately 20 feet of space from
the front of the lot on which the Crazy Horse Too conducts its
business, resulting in the further loss of parking and access space.
When petitioner and his attorney attempted to address these parking and
traffic concerns, they were advised by Mayor Jan Jones that such issues
were not going to be discussed and that attempts at such discussion was
out of order, thereby denying Petitioner's due process rights.
Respondents did not require Crazy Horse Too to prepare and submit with
the subject application traffic and parking studies which Respondents
invariably require other applicants to prepare and submit."
Another lawsuit was filed by a neighboring
alleging "Racketeering" involving Rizzolo and his landlord Renate
Schiff. Rizzolo and Schiff unsuccessfully attempted to evict the
neighboring business to provide additional parking for the topless
club. Both lawsuits are pending in District Court.
Have a MERRY CHRISTMAS and
a JUSTICE FILLED NEW
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