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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:

Talking Cars
INSIDE VEGAS by Steve Miller
November 24, 2003
                                         Las Vegas Review Journal Editorial Cartoon by Jim Day

"Using innovative technology, OnStar can provide you with the latest information and assistance. Just press the blue OnStar button and you'll be connected to the OnStar Center where trained, knowledgeable, live Advisors are ready to help. Plus, some OnStar vehicles give you the ability to send and receive calls like you would using a wireless phone minus inconvenient dialing. Benefit: 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, OnStar's only a button away. And if your front air bag deploys, OnStar will try contacting you." - Excerpt from OnStar onboard communications system advertisement

But, what happens when the "trained, knowledgeable, live Advisors" are agents for federal law enforcement agencies, and you think conversations in your new Cadillac or Hummer are confidential, especially when they involve the bribing of public officials? If you're so inclined, you could inadvertently end up a plea bargaining felon heading for time in a federal penitentiary.

Las Vegas has long believed that what happens here stays here. However, we would have to clean our own house in order to retain such exclusivity. Lately, our house cleaning has become so slovenly that we ended up attracting outside help in the form of the U.S. government. What has always been commonplace in Sin City -- the bribing of our beloved politicians -- became a form of domestic terrorism in the eyes of the feds. It all started on Thursday morning February 21, 2003 when after years of surveillance, 80 agents raided the Crazy Horse Too. Local politicians ran for cover. But that was just the beginning.

The dictionary describes "terrorism" as "The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing."

In Sin City's recent "Operation G-Sting" investigations of topless bar owners, the term "terrorism" has become the keyword. Its meaning has been translated into many manifestations including the recent use of the Patriot Act to look into money laundering by known targets. It has also opened the door to the use of high tech listening devices including onboard communications systems.

In the case of Jaguars owner Mike Galardi, "force" comes in the form of money paid to politicians and police officers to do his bidding, a mild form of domestic terrorism. In the case of Crazy Horse Too owner Rick Rizzolo, "force" is more in line with "violence" -- terrorism per se.

Enter the federal government.

For years, Vegas officials turned their backs or worse -- allegedly participated in the get-rich-quick schemes of the two topless bar owners. Galardi pleaded guilty to racketeering. Rizzolo is suspected of racketeering and political corruption in addition to credit card fraud and coercion.

"There are numerous audio interceptions and video," according to assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Schiess. Noted defense attorneys say the government's case is rock solid.

Drawing largely from those wiretaps, prosecutors allege Galardi had been bribing politicians, funneling $200,000 to $400,000 to San Diego politicians and police officers along with paying off Las Vegas officials.

Prosecutors say Vegas elected officials "controlled and harassed" Galardi's competitors. In one case, certain county commissioners whom Galardi admitted paying bribes tried to create a distance requirement to squelch Sapphire -- a competitive club -- by saying it was too close to another adult business. A lawsuit against the county prevailed and the law was repealed. But in the interim, the sale of the property was stalled costing the future developer additional millions. The scheme was eventually disclosed in court records.

In Rizzolo's case, numerous witnesses have come forward alleging they were threatened with physical violence if they didn't sign inflated credit card tabs. Others reportedly were beaten up by bar employees when they attempted to leave the club without paying disputed charges. Several assault and battery cases have been settled out of court for undisclosed sums, while an attempted murder civil case is scheduled for trial in January 2004. No criminal prosecutions have occurred adding to the political corruption speculation.

The difference between Galardi and Rizzolo is vast. Rizzolo professes his innocence while Galardi has agreed to forfeit $3.85 million to the government, pay $200,000 in restitution to both the city of Las Vegas and the county, and give up ownership of his clubs in order to draw a lighter sentence. He also agreed to testify against the public officials he bribed.

Rizzolo appears to be in a state of denial even though the trail leading to his bar is covered with the blood of hapless patrons. The trail to Galardi's bar is covered with cash bribes -- no violent episodes have been revealed in his case. The dichotomy between the two cases causes speculation that Rizzolo may be the fed's main target because of the physical violence aspects of his case.

As far as the talking cars that may have been responsible for revealing much of the information being used in both the Galardi and Rizzolo cases, the company that manufactures the system has taken the matter to court. A federal appeals court on November 18 ruled against the FBI in its efforts to eavesdrop on private conversations through the communication systems installed in vehicles.

In a 2-1 decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision of U.S. District Judge Lloyd George of Las Vegas, who allowed the FBI to use the roving "bugging devices" in vehicles to gain information about criminal activity. The appeals court said the FBI eavesdropping interfered with the operation of the system. The court said the onboard communications system operator could not assist the FBI without disabling the system, and that violated the condition of a "minimum of interference requirement" in the law. "In this case, FBI surveillance completely disabled the monitored car's system," the ruling stated.

Judge Richard Tallman dissented, saying the majority opinion creates "a wide-ranging form of protection for the legitimate targets of government surveillance."

So, for the time being, thugs can relax in their new cars. Big Brother can't eavesdrop there anymore. But that may come as little comfort to Galardi and Rizzolo this late in their game.

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