Two former AGs weigh in on Laxalt-Burnett meeting and secret recording

A Nevada attorney general pressed for a meeting with the head of the Gaming Control Board to discuss the state taking sides on behalf of a casino licensee embroiled in a nasty civil litigation.

As first reported in The Nevada Independent, the April 2015 meeting between AG Adam Laxalt and GCB Chairman A.G. Burnett took place at a time a controversial wrongful termination suit against the Las Vegas Sands Corp. and its Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson had reached a boiling point with millions hanging in the balance. Burnett was apparently so concerned about the timing of Laxalt’s approach that he surreptitiously recorded their conversation and turned over the tape to the FBI, which declined to pursue the matter criminally.

When asked for comment, Laxalt downplayed the timing of the meeting and the casino company’s request that the state file an amicus brief on its behalf in the wrongful termination case, offering in part, “This matter was handled just like other issues I encounter on a daily basis.”  But his constituent service could easily be construed as concierge service for his largest and most important donor.

On first glance, the meeting seems out of the ordinary and even suspicious.

But just how uncommon was it?

That’s one of the questions I asked former Nevada Attorneys General Robert List and Frankie Sue Del Papa in the wake of the story, broken by The Indy’s Editor Jon Ralston and thus far largely ignored by the state’s press corps.

Although List and Del Papa couldn’t be more different politically, both speak with great pride about their time as attorney general.

A staunch Republican, List served as AG from 1970-78 before being elected governor.  He served a single term, later became a spokesman and proponent of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project. List remans extremely active in Republican Party politics.

Del Papa is a diehard Democrat and a political trailblazer. In 1986, she was the first woman elected to the office of secretary of state, and again broke new ground when she was elected AG in 1990 and served three terms as the Nevada’s top counsel. She left office in 2003, but remains active in Democratic Party politics.

List was an early supporter of Laxalt’s foray into Nevada politics and offers an enthusiastic endorsement of his character.

“I think he’s terrific,” the former governor said. “I think he’s surrounded himself with just a high-caliber group of individuals and staff members. The office has been aggressive and active on behalf of the state of Nevada. He’s very, very forceful, effective and exemplary professional."

Del Papa has followed Burnett’s career closely and considers him a hard-working and highly ethical attorney.

“I know A.G. Burnett,” she said. “He’s a straight arrow. He worked in my office a long time ago. He’s totally a straight arrow.”

List and Del Papa agreed it was common in their experience for the attorney general to field calls from constituents on a wide variety of topics and concerns. They also agreed that such contacts occasionally led to followup conversations with other state officials.

List brushed aside any intrigue that might be attached to the meeting. He also found nothing out of the ordinary in Laxalt desiring a meeting involving a private litigation and his apparent decision not to bring an assistant with him.

Del Papa offered a different perspective. “It’s not unheard of, just unusual,” she said.

Then again, so was secretly recording a meeting involving a public official.

Outside an FBI undercover sting, such recordings would appear to be rare. That speaks to Burnett’s apparent concern about the meeting, but also may say something about his understanding of real politics in the state.

“As a rule, and generally speaking, the gaming authorities are very circumspect,” Del Papa said. “They go by the book, which is in the state’s best interests.”

List countered, “From what I can see, there’s nothing there, according to what was in The Indy. Adam didn’t do anything wrong.”

He’s less kind to Burnett.

“Obviously, what was going through his mind was imagination and didn’t amount to anything,” List said. “I was very surprised that Chairman Burnett would do such a thing.”

And the recording? “So far as I know, I was never taped when I was AG,” List said.

Whether you believe Laxalt was practicing standard business or in a hurry after hearing his master’s voice, the meeting between the AG and A.G. offers its lessons.

No matter how careful he was, Laxalt had to know he was courting controversy by bringing a message to Burnett at a time the wrongful termination suit of former Sands executive Steven Jacobs was such a controversial and highly publicized topic in the press. Adelson’s lawyers and advocates were scrambling to avoid further damage in what would eventually cost the mercurial casino mogul $75 million and millions more in attorney fees when the litigation was settled. But it’s also possible the attorney general thought the meeting would remain private.

And no matter how professional Burnett was being, he had to appreciate how controversial his act of recording the attorney general would be in some business circles. This is is Nevada, the wink-and-a-nod state. Burnett may find himself eating lunch alone a lot from now on.

From the FBI’s lack of continued interest, it appears the Laxalt-Burnett conversation didn’t approach a possible violation of federal law, and that includes the honest services fraud statute that has been applied in Nevada public corruption cases.

But there’s still a real story here.

At the very least, Laxalt’s full-court press on Adelson’s behalf offers us an excellent example of how real politics is practiced in Nevada.

John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas journalist and author. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com, or on Twitter at @jlnevadasmith.