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Gov. Lombardo turns heads with appointment of Assad to GCB

John L. Smith
John L. Smith

Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo has begun making his first appointments to the state’s many boards and commissions, and this past week’s announcement of George Assad to the Gaming Control Board has drawn more than the usual number of furrowed brows and lines of newsprint.

In tandem with the Nevada Gaming Commission, the control board is tasked with regulating and governing the state’s far-flung and economically indispensable casino industry. As the agency’s welcome statement puts it, “through strict regulation of all persons, locations, practices, associations and related activities.” That covers a lot of ground.

In his own statement, Lombardo expressed his conviction that Assad, a Las Vegas Municipal Court judge for nearly a decade and of late a commissioner on the Nevada Transportation Authority, is well-suited to serve as one of the control board’s three members: “The Nevada Gaming Control Board is a critical state agency, and I’m confident that George will honorably execute the mission of the board.”

Maybe he’s right, but you needn’t look far to find controversy – admittedly some of it more than a decade old – associated with Assad. As a judge, he was embroiled in a high-profile ethics case that tarred his time on the bench and led to a public censure that was overturned only after being appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Assad returned to the front page in 2011 after his wayward son, Anthony Carleo, robbed the Bellagio of $1.5 million gambling chips. Disguising his identity with a helmet and dark jumpsuit, the man dubbed in the press “Bellagio Bandit” sped on a motorcycle out of the north valet entrance off into the night. 

It was something less than an Ocean’s 11 remake.

Carleo soon returned to party and play at Strip casinos, including the Bellagio, where the former real estate broker dropped $73,000 on that New Year’s Eve. He was later apprehended after attempting to sell some of the traceable high-dollar chips he’d stolen. Carleo received a sentence of three to 11 years.

Assad wound up being bounced from office as municipal court judge after two terms. Whether his association with the Bellagio Bandit had something to do with it is unclear, but it’s hardly a stretch to conclude that his tangle with the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline did nothing to help his electability quotient.

When a woman in 2003 appeared in Assad’s court on behalf of her boyfriend in a matter involving his unpaid traffic tickets, the judge ordered her detained in his stead. Uncharged, but jailed. Not exactly the sort of decision-making they teach at the National Judicial College.

In February 2007, the commission voted to publicly reprimand Assad after determining he had violated multiple canons in the Nevada Code of Judicial Conduct. That includes the part that says it’s unprofessional to order a nonlitigant in a court hearing to tell her boyfriend, “you’re going to jail if he didn’t get his butt down here … real fast.”

The controversy contributed to Assad’s reputation as a judge with a short fuse, and that intemperance was reflected in judicial surveys conducted by the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Although the state Supreme Court eventually softened the judicial discipline commission’s blow in 2008 by reversing the public censure, it didn’t question the facts of the complaint. The court’s conclusion: Judge Assad shall issue a formal apology … “and shall enroll, at his own expense, in the next available judicial ethics class at the National Judicial College.”

For more than a decade Assad has been a commissioner on the NTA, which regulates commercial passenger transportation, movers, and tow trucks. That’s a lot of experience with the state’s regulatory structure.

By statute and tradition, the control board has consisted of persons with legal, law enforcement, and accounting experience, but it’s clear that with the passage of time those hard lines are softening. The current board is made up of attorneys after Assad replaced Phil Katsaros, who had an accounting degree. The board often referred to by Nevada’s casino industry as the “gold standard” of regulation now allows for a bit of wiggle room.

Assad’s appointment places him in easily one of the highest profile positions in the state. Although the appointment had “some people in government shaking their heads,” as one source put it, this being so early in Lombardo’s tenure I’d like to look at it another way.

Perhaps control board member Assad’s personal history will turn out to be a good thing. Just maybe his own gaming experience, public pratfalls and family challenges will make him a more empathetic arbiter when small-time operators and offenders find themselves before the board. In Nevada, with a handful of exceptions major licensees are treated with the deference usually reserved for foreign dignitaries with diplomatic immunity.

Whether the Assad appointment is remembered as an inspired selection or an embarrassing bust, a lot is riding on it.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR.


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