Answering questions about our secret taping story

When I first heard the story of the state’s top gaming overseer secretly recording the state attorney general and turning the tape over to the FBI, I had the same reaction as many did after we published the details: Wow.

It was hard to believe, but as I moved to verify the story and pursue details, no one with whom I spoke disputed the initial account of that astounding sequence of events last year.

As I will do occasionally as editor – and in this case, the author of the piece – I want to share how we handled the story, answer questions that have been raised since we published, and invite you to drop queries in the comments section.

So:

I first heard about the story months ago. I was incredulous, but my source had always been impeccable. From there, getting the story organized and written was a meticulous process.

Other people, albeit a small number, knew about the recording. I was thus able to confirm and reconfirm the sequence of events, one conversation at a time.

Las Vegas Sands spokesman Ron Reese openly and agreeably answered my questions about meetings that took place. He is the only person who spoke to me on the record.

I circled back to those who had contemporaneous knowledge several times in order to confirm details and ensure precision in the sequence of events.

I did not go to either Laxalt or Burnett until I was confident I knew what had happened, and when. Burnett immediately invoked confidentiality statutes, as did Laxalt.  

The attorney general’s office initially asked me to get Burnett to waive confidentiality. He would not do so.

After initially not being willing to comment, Laxalt’s office provided me with a statement days after I first asked questions and less than an hour before we published the story. (We were prepared to publish without Laxalt’s comment, but it is always preferable to include comment from the primary parties in a story.) Laxalt’s statement did not quarrel with the facts in the story and acknowledged his conversation with Adelson, which Ron Reese had already told me occurred.

As to various questions:

---Many have wondered why Burnett went to such lengths. The answer, as explained in the story: the timing of Laxalt’s request for a meeting and the desire to proceed with an abundance of caution. Adelson wanted Burnett to intervene on behalf of the Gaming Control Board because the state and federal governments had shared certain information in probes of the company. Adelson believed that information was privileged, and he did not want any raw investigative files brought into a lawsuit filed by a former employee who also had accused Las Vegas Sands of wrongdoing in Macau. Burnett refused. The agency was preparing to fine the company and the lawsuit with Jacobs was at a fever pitch when Laxalt reached out to him. Burnett, I was told, wondered why Laxalt was so insistent on meeting with him outside of work. I was also told Burnett believed that he was following the control board’s prime directive, which is to protect the state’s integrity.

---Some have wondered why this is a story at all if the FBI found no crime had been committed. Well. If the press is only going to report behavior by public officials that is outright criminal as opposed to questionable or potentially unethical, we will have a lot less to write about -- and we will not be doing our jobs as a government watchdog on behalf of the public. The Nevada public has the right to know that the attorney general asked the chairman of the gaming board to meet him outside their offices to discuss a private lawsuit involving the state’s wealthiest casino magnate. The public has the right to know that the commission chairman was so concerned about ethics and protecting the state that he recorded the state attorney general and turned the recording over to the FBI, no matter what is on the tape. And the public has the right to know what elected officials and lawmakers, as well as the state ethics commission, think about the situation, including whether there should now be a legislative or regulatory hearing on the matter.

---A number of people have asked how Burnett could have legally taped Laxalt. Here is a good piece explaining the law. In short, the statutes say Nevada is a two-party consent state when it comes to telephone communications. Not so when people record one another in person -- then only one person need consent, i.e., the person doing the recording. (Remember when then-Las Vegas Councilman Michael McDonald taped then-Mayor Oscar Goodman?)

---A couple of people criticized our headline, one saying it “implied wrongdoing” even though -- as we stated in the first lines of story -- the FBI did not pursue charges. We carefully talked over the headline and endeavored to keep it purely factual, as all headlines should. In our view, “Chief gaming regulator secretly recorded conversation with attorney general, turned tape over to FBI” precisely describes the key events. The meeting itself was the other key event, but headlines cannot be 30 words long so editors have to make word choices. All that said, a news story is intended to be read in its entirety in order to bring the fullest understanding. Our story, as a whole from from headline to last line, is a full and factual report of what happened, and when, and why, and between whom. We stand behind it.

---Others have asked whether there is more to come. The answer is: We have made a public records request to get the tape. We are seeking reaction from other gaming regulators, lawmakers and ethics experts. We have already obtained some. We will report whatever we find out, and are told.