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Inside Vegas - Steve Miller

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:

Another Sin City Scam
Misuse of Eminent Domain
INSIDE VEGAS by Steve Miller
May 27, 2003
                                           Part of full page ad that appeared in Las Vegas Review Journal on May 20, 2003

"Life and liberty are secure only so long as the right to property is secure." - Thomas Jefferson

"Mrs. Pappas, you've had your property long enough. It's time to give it up!" That is a direct quote attributed to former Vegas Mayor Jan Jones by John, Harry, and Carol Pappas, and attorneys Glade Hall and Grant Gerber.

In 1990, the Las Vegas Downtown Redevelopment Agency wished to clear a one-square-block area located at the southwest corner of Las Vegas Blvd. and Fremont Street so that Florida developer Bob Snow could build a project then to be known as Church Street Station.  At the time, the block included the Cornet Store, First Western Savings, a small building owned by former US Senator Chic Hecht, and a 6,000 square foot shopping center that was owned by the pioneer Pappas family for over 60 years.

In order for the city to take the properties, it had to abide by several laws pertaining to the proper and legal use of eminent domain.  According to Nevada law the most important qualification for the seizure of private property for "higher and better" use was that the property being taken must be considered "blighted."  The legal description of "blight" includes property that is either vacant, boarded up, or had become an attractive nuisance in the neighborhood.  In the case of the properties located within the block the city wanted to take, none of the properties qualified under the legal determination of "blight."

Mirage developer Steve Wynn was a staunch opponent of the Snow project.  In 1991, Wynn successfully convinced the city council that because the block was not "blighted," the council should not condemn the property and turn it over to his rival Mr. Snow.

The old city council of which I was a member, determined by a three-to-two vote that it could not take the block by eminent domain because of the lack of "blight." I was the swing vote because I believed in what Mr. Wynn said about the property not being blighted, therefore it was not qualified for seizure. Consequently, Mr. Snow's project was moved to it's present location at Main and Ogden, now named the Main Street Station Hotel and Casino. It later filed for bankruptcy and was bought for twenty-five cents on the dollar by the Vegas based Boyd Group.

In 1991, a new mayor and a new council member were elected.  To the amazement of observers of Las Vegas Downtown Redevelopment history, the new mayor and her obedient council reversed the decision of the previous council and immediately seized a number of private properties that were not legally "blighted." The Pappas family's' property was included in the seizure.

Mrs. Pappas was a 65-year-old Greek immigrant who escaped the Nazi occupation of her homeland as a young woman to settle in America to live the American dream.  The city's latest scheme was to clear the Pappas land, build a parking garage, then deed the new structure to a cartel of downtown casino owners including Mr. Wynn who just five years earlier had argued that the property was not legally qualified to be seized.

Ironically, fifty years after the end of World War II, Mrs. Pappas with her sons Harry and John were to come face to face once again with the tyranny she and her family had escaped from during World War II.

When informed of the city's eminent domain game plan, Carol Pappas requested an audience with Mayor Jones.  Carol explained to the mayor that the shopping center was fully occupied with businesses ranging from a Mexican restaurant to a law firm.  She told Jones how she derived a $6,000 per month income from her long-term tenants, and how the center had never had a vacancy. Mayor Jones told the Pappas family and their two attorneys that they were to receive no more than $450,000 for their property, and that it was to become a "much needed public parking facility."  Mayor Jan Jones then tersely stated according to witnesses, "Mrs. Pappas, you have had your property long enough. It's time to give it up!"  The meeting ended.  A short time later, bulldozers disposed of the Pappas' shopping center.

During the meeting,  Jones neglected to mention that the "public" use of the new parking structure was to last for only six months before she would deed the structure at no cost to her friends in the casino business.  Jones also neglected to mention that she was about to personally invest in Mirage/Golden Nugget stock, one of the casinos that was to become an owner of Mrs. Pappas' property. (The Nevada Ethics Commission later cleared  Jones of any wrongdoing regarding her gaming stock holdings by determining that she was not a "major stockholder.")

The Pappas property consisted of 7,000 square feet of land located on a corner fronting the Strip and Carson Ave. In 1996, Former US Senator Hecht received $4.3 million (with Councilman Michael McDonald's blessings) for a similar 7,000 square foot parcel of land. Hecht's land was located on the same block but his land was not on a corner and fronted only on Fremont St. making it worth less than a corner parcel. Chic Hecht is a stockholder in Boyd Group, a partner in the Fremont Street Limited Liability Corporation that now owns the Pappas' corner.

(Councilman Michael McDonald who is currently running for his third term, voted in 1995 to approve using taxpayer money to fund the casino's court fight to keep the Pappas property.)

In addition to $4.3 million, Hecht accepted a $150,000 per year job as a lobbyist for the Fremont St. Experience L.L.C.  One of his first duties was to contact Mrs. Pappas and lobby her to accept the casino's lowball offer.  She declined. In 2000, Jones' successor Oscar Goodman offered the Pappas family $4.5 million which they also refused. When asked why, Harry Pappas said it was for the "principal." He then stated that he just wanted his land returned even though there was a 5 story parking garage built on it. He didn't care. He said "Just give my family back what was stolen from us."

In 1996, District Judge Don Chariez ruled in favor of the Pappas family and ordered a jury trial to determine the true value of their property and how much they are owed in back rent.  The Pappas family' also filed a punitive damage lawsuit against Jones personally for violating their constitutional rights.

In 1999, Chariez was convinced to step down from the bench and run for Congress therefore turning the case over to another judge who on January 15, 1999, ruled that yet another appeal of the case by the casinos would be sent back to the Nevada Supreme Court for what he called "clarification."  The Pappas' attorneys called the casino's request for another appeal a stalling tactic to try to wear down Mrs. Pappas.

Meanwhile out on the Strip, Steve Wynn was engaged in a continuing battle with the owners of a small apartment building known as Villa De Flores. The Flores property is located smack in the middle of the Mirage parking lot and may have been responsible for curtailing the westerly expansion of the hotel.  To Wynn's obvious dismay, Mr. Flores would not part with his property for less than $7 million (Wynn offered him $3 million).  It appeared to many observers that Wynn might have been pleased if the county stepped in to take the property by eminent domain and thus allow Wynn a "higher and better use" for it.

(Wynn has since resigned from Mirage Resorts and is presently building another Strip hotel.)

The Pappas case had set a few precedents that would hinder the county from potentially deciding to exercise eminent domain against Flores - if they were asked to do so.  In any event, Judge Chariez by ruling in favor of the Pappas family threw a monkey wrench into all future eminent domain seizures in Nevada - at least for the time being.

It may be coincidence, but it was reported that Wynn one of the persons who convinced Chariez to run for congress thereby causing him to step down from the bench in order to be eligible.  By stepping down, Chariez inadvertently opened the way for another judge to accept the casino's motion for reconsideration of their appeal request.  It may also be coincidence, but on Sept. 25, 1998 Chariez informed me that immediately following his stepping down from the bench, Wynn stopped showing interest or support for his congressional race.  He told me that Mr. Wynn "is no longer taking my calls."

In March 1998, GEORGE MAGAZINE wrote the Special Report: THE 10 MOST CORRUPT CITIES IN AMERICA. The story  featured the Carol Pappas case. Craig Offman opened his story with a quote, "'The politician who steals is worse than a thief. He is a fool,' said George W. Plunkitt, a turn-of-the-century New York political boss. 'With all the grand opportunities around for the man with a political pull, there’s no excuse for stealin’ a cent.'" 

Undaunted by the GEORGE article, Mayor Jones and her council continued spending over $1 million taxpayer dollars defending their taking of the Pappas' corner.

Even with so much press, the story was beginning to lose its edge. Harry Pappas blamed it on the law of attrition. Feeling that the city and the casinos were trying to wear his family down, on Tuesday, May 20, 2003, Pappas took out a full page ad in the Las Vegas Review Journal to keep his story alive. It's not unusual that the Sin City news media suffers a lapse of memory in cases involving wealthy casino owners, hence the startling advertisement that tells about John Pappas, Sr. arriving in Las Vegas in 1902 and opening a downtown restaurant where he paid his employees with silver dollars. It also diagrams how a city had gone bizerk and taken one privately owned piece of land and transferred it to another private owner who had more political juice.
                                  Part of full page ad that appeared in Las Vegas Review Journal on May 20, 2003

Even with the Pappas case looming over city leader's heads, another possible misuse of the power of eminent domain surfaced recently when Fred "Rick" Rizzolo, a topless bar owner who is the subject of a federal investigation for alleged mob ties, told a reporter that the government was going to use eminent domain to remove his long-time nemisis Buffalo Jim Barrier, owner of an auto repair business that is blocking the expansion of Rizzolo's bar. However, because of an increasing scandal involving alleged bribery of public officials, a scandal that includes Rizzolo, his expansion plans have been put on hold.

Vegas Mayor Goodman, however, left a crack in the door this week by stating, "I will not consider using eminent domain in the immediate future." He had eariler stated that he would "never" use the law to take a private property to benefit another private interest. Rizzolo has recently been showing plans for a new topless bar with a taxpayer funded driveway and sidewalk running through the middle of Barrier's garage.

Irony has many faces: Jan Jones after leaving office in 1999, went to work for Harrah's and became a promoter of California casinos competitive to downtown Las Vegas; The Fremont St. Experience parking garage is usually empty and its' retail area has been boarded up since the day it opened; the liability of the Fremont St. Limited Liability Corporation in the ongoing Pappas lawsuit  remains "limited," Councilman Mike McDonald, a close friend of Rizzolo, is the subject of a Federal Grand Jury probe into political corruption, and Steve Wynn must pass Fred Flores' old apartment house every time he drives down Spring Mountain Road to the site of his new hotel.

Copyright © Steve Miller

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